In 1925, a dog named Balto became a national celebrity for bringing medicine to a remote Alaska town. But was he the real hero?
|Oct 22|| 2|
Welcome to Sports Stories, a newsletter written by Eric Nusbaum, and illustrated by Adam Villacin. Every week, we’ll be learning about sports, history, and sports history. We hope you enjoy Sports Stories — and that if you do, you share it with your friends, families, and any good dogs you might know.
One thing I believe that there are too many celebrity humans in the world, and not enough celebrity dogs. So as you read this issue of Sports Stories, keep in mind that it is not my intention to diminish the achievements of one such famous dog. I simply intend to praise another, less famous dog, whose glory was stolen (by humans, by happenstance, by the random nature of history) on a wintery day in 1925.
This story begins in the remote outpost of Nome, Alaska, population 100. Picture an old west town, with wooden buildings on the main drag. But instead of a hot sun shining over dusty roads, a layer of ice covers everything. Even in the summer, the temperature in Nome rarely rises above 60 degrees fahrenheit. In the winter, it barely rises above 15. Now place this old west town in the furthest reaches of the United States. Place it along the Bering Sea, hundreds of miles away from any major or even minor city. Even today, Nome, Alaska is so isolated that you can only arrive by air or by sea. No roads lead to Nome.
In the early months of 1925, a diphtheria epidemic broke out in Nome. Back in the 1920s, diphtheria was an unfortunately common disease. Hundreds of thousands of people were afflicted each year in the United States alone—most of them children. Tens of thousands died. It was a gruesome disease, passed through the air. It caused lymph nodes to swell like balloons. The only treatment available at the time was a serum made from the blood platelets of horses.
In the fall of 1924, the town’s only doctor noticed that Nome’s supply of this serum had expired. He placed an order for more, but by the time the winter came, the new serum had yet to arrive. In December, the town’s port closed for the winter. No more ships would be coming until the spring. Still no serum. Then, in January, a three-year-old boy contracted diphtheria. He died two weeks later. Soon afterward, a seven-year-old girl showed the symptoms. The doctor tried the expired serum on her, but it was not effective. She died almost immediately.
The story I’m telling has been told before—again and again. The political leaders of Nome met, and wired out to other Alaska towns in hopes that somebody might be able to deliver the desperately needed serum. But nobody could. Days passed by slowly. More and more children contracted the disease. Many of them were Native Alaskans. The nearest serum was in Anchorage, more than 500 miles away. But the freezing weather and blizzard conditions made it impossible for even an airplane to traverse that distance. (There were concerns that, in addition to being blinded by snow, a pilot might freeze to death attempting the journey.) As I mentioned, there were no roads. There was only only way the serum could reasonably get from Anchorage to Nome: dogsled.
At risk of spoiling the ending of this story, what resulted was one of the most glorious, inspiring sports stories I can think of. It has become known as The Serum Run, and The Great Race of Mercy. Alaska’s most accomplished dog teams joined forces to relay the serum almost 700 miles through hellish conditions from Nenana (the closest city connected to a rail line) to Nome. With teams traveling through the remote wilderness in both directions from both Nenana and Nome, the relay became a national sensation. It was front page news for a week in the New York Times. Readers who had never even heard of Nome the week before were gripped by the drama. Sick children. Serum on the way. All of it in the hands of a few grizzled men and their courageous dogs.
On February 2, the final dog team finally arrived in Nome. The serum had frozen solid over the course of its long journey, passed from one musher to another. By the time the final musher, Gunnar Kaasen, and his team arrived in Nome, five children had already died. Dozens more children and adults were afflicted with diphtheria.
The editors of the New York Times in 1925 were not shy about playing up the drama on their front page:
The last lap in the dramatic race with death through ice, snow, and wind-locked fortresses of Winter-draped Alaska was won by Gunnar Kasson (sic). Kasson was forced to make a double run through the blizzard, which was so dense that in it he missed the relay which was waiting a score of miles from Nome to take his precious burden from his own wearied dogs and speed it into the stricken village.
But Kaasen deflected credit. It wasn’t him, he insisted, who did the work to make this final leg possible. It was his lead dog, a Siberian Husky named Balto. Without Balto’s heroics, Kaasen said, the serum would not have arrived.
And so a legend was born.
Balto immediately became a national celebrity. There was a Hollywood movie made about him. Balto, and the rest of the team toured the United States. Children’s books were written about Balto. He was a star attraction featured in traveling vaudeville shows. The business of Balto became so big that eventually he and the team were purchased by a promoter. A statue of Balto was erected in New York’s Central Park. It’s still there. Eventually, Balto lived out his final years at a zoo in Cleveland. He lived 11 remarkable years. And he lives on: in books and movies, like the 1995 cartoon Balto that saw him voiced by Kevin Bacon. His remains are still on display in Cleveland’s Museum of Natural History.
Balto’s sudden celebrity was one of those historical quirks: a matter timing and luck. He was a convenient hero, the lead dog who was actually in Nome. His name was the one in those first news reports. It wasn’t his fault that he became famous. But the thing about Balto is that for as magnificent and worthy of a doggy as he was, he was not the only dog responsible for the arrival of the serum in Nome. He wasn’t even the most heroic. (I feel like a jerk calling a heroic dog “less heroic,” but it’s true.)
First of all, Balto was part of a team. He didn’t do it alone. Second of all, Balto’s team only completed the final stretch of the relay: not the longest or hardest stretch. That honor belongs to a team led by a dog named Togo.
By the time of the Nome relay, Togo was already 11 years old. He was the beloved, trusty lead dog of one of mushing’s greatest legends: Leonhard Seppala. Seppala was born in Norway. He came to Alaska as a young man in search of gold. Instead, he found his calling as a dogsled driver and dog trainer. He was, to say the least, a very intense man. In The Cruelest Miles, their definitive book on the Nome Relay, authors Gay and Laney Salisbury sum Seppala up in a single paragraph:
Seppala was one of few Alaskan drivers who depended almost exclusively on Siberians. As far as Seppala was concerned, no other dog could equal the speed and stamina of his animals. He may have seen his reflection in the dogs: they were just as driven and competitive as he was, and they were smaller and lighter than their peers. The dogs could be playful and amusing; they could also be tough and unrelenting. A resident of Nome once found Seppala at work training his dogs, and remembered that at one moment he was on the sled runners pedaling with his feet and throwing snowballs at them, and the next he was running beside them “like a reindeer.” He and the dogs shared the same color eyes, the piercing blue-ish white of glacier ice. To be the object of Seppala’s gaze could be an unsettling experience.
Just look at him:
In 1912, Seppala was hired by the famous arctic explorer Roald Amundsen to train a team of dogs for one of Amundsen’s adventures. (Like Seppala, Amundsen could really pull off a fur coat.) When the mission was cancelled, Seppala got to keep the dogs. Togo was a descendent of that first group of puppies. Seppala named him after the Japanese Admiral Togo Heihachiro. Togo was smaller than a typical sled dog. He was brown with blue eyes, like Seppala’s. But from the start, there was something about him. Togo and Seppala had a deep bond.
The story goes that when Togo was a puppy, he had some kind of throat ailment. Between that and his constant misbehavior, Seppala figured he had no future as a sled dog, so he gave him to a neighbor to keep as a pet. But after a few weeks, Togo escaped the confines of domestic life. He leaped through a plate glass window, and ran back to Seppala’s kennel. Soon he proved himself not just a worthy sled dog, but a prodigy.
By the time of the serum run, Togo was an old, experienced dog. He and Seppala had a connection that extended beyond racing. They were friends, in that way that only a human and a dog can be. But this experience, and this friendship, would serve them well. Because of their reputation as the best racers in Alaska, Seppala and Togo were tasked with racing 360 miles through the most difficult terrain of the entire relay. Balto may have carried out the final leg. But Togo carried out the longest, and most treacherous.
Togo would get some credit for this. But after Balto’s quick ascent to fame, Seppala became jealous on behalf of his beloved Togo. He believed that his dog was deserving of greater adoration than Balto. He was especially furious when journalists credited Balto with Togo’s own exploits on the trail.
A year after the relay, after Balto had become a celebrity, Seppala brought Togo and his team down to the Lower 48 for their own victory tour. Seppala became something of a celebrity himself. The dogs were a great attraction, and even competed in a few races in New England. Togo retired in Poland Springs, Maine. The Nome Relay had been his last long distance race. He lived to be sixteen years old. After his death, he was put on display in Yale’s Peabody Museum. Decades later, he was moved back home to Alaska. He remains there, on display in the museum/gift shop at the official Iditarod Headquarters in Wasilla.
If you’re interested in learning more about Togo, Balto, and the Nome relay, please read the aforementioned book The Cruelest Miles. Its authors do a really nice job drawing out the personalities of the central players in the drama, both human and canine. I was also really impressed with the website “Balto’s True Story” created by the independent historian Earl J. Avesano.
I wish I had time to learn more about the early days of dogsledding in Alaska. Maybe one day I will. If you’re a sports fan, you probably know of Nome as the final destination of the Iditarod, the annual mega-race of the world’s greatest dog teams. It’s commonly repeated that the Iditarod was founded as a way to honor the serum run to Nome, but this is not the case. The Iditarod, which is named for a historic thousand-mile trail that dates back to Native Alaskan dog sledders does however follow some of the same route that the serum racers took in 1925.
The movie Balto from 1995, in which the titular dog is actually an outcast half-wolf, is not historically accurate.
For a really fascinating look at the lives and afterlives of Balto and Togo, I recommend the chapter called “Balto the Dog” by Rachel Poliquin in the book The Afterlives of Animals. Poliquin talks about the preservation of famous dogs via taxidermy etc. She shares the fun fact that Togo’s body was once featured in what was considered a “dog hall of fame” at Yale. And while his taxidermied self was sent to Alaska, his bones remain at Yale.
The Window of Opportunity
As I learned more about the relay to Nome, what struck me was not just the heroic nature of the feat, how unlikely it was. First, it was a miracle that these dogs and their humans were able to pull it off. But more than that, so many historical circumstances had to fall into place to even make the attempt possible. February of 1925 was probably the last moment in human history when something like the Great Race of Mercy would have been necessary. Soon after the Nome relay, aviation technology would improve to the point that if somebody really needed to transport some medicine 500 miles to a remote town, even in harsh winter conditions, an airplane would be the best way.
But the technology that allowed Nome’s residents to communicate their dire situation was also relatively new. The U.S. Army laid telegraph lines underwater and over land in Alaska at the turn of the twentieth century. The relay happened in that short window when the residents of Nome *did* have that link to the outside world, but the outside world didn’t have a better way than dog sleds to reach Nome. At almost any other point in human history, it simply could not have happened.
The relay is also a reminder that while we now think of dog sledding purely as a sport, it’s actually a tradition borne of human necessity. The connection between these dogs and arctic societies goes way beyond racing. A few years ago, archeologists in Siberia discovered a two thousand year-old dog cemetery. Among the artifacts they uncovered was a knife with a harnessed dog carved into its handle.
The relationship between men like Kaasen and Seppala and dogs like Balto and Togo was the culmination of all those years of mutual reliance between domesticated animals and people. It lives on not only as a great, heroic achievement ons its own merits by the dogs and humans who completed the relay—but as the last great hurrah of a bygone era.
This has been Vol. 5 of Sports Stories by Eric Nusbaum (words) and Adam Villacin (art). If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, please reply to this email or contact email@example.com. We’d love to hear from you.
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