In 1925, residents of the small town of Nome, Alaska faced a potentially fatal epidemic and very few options to save them from death. Multiple teams of sled dogs came to their rescue, and residents continue to celebrate one unlikely hero to this day.
In January of that fateful year, physicians in Nome began to witness symptoms of diphtheria among some of the townspeople. This provided ample grounds for worry: By 1921, the infectious nose and throat disease had already led to the deaths of over 15,000 U.S. citizens.
The disease posed a particular danger to isolated towns, as treatment could often be found almost exclusively in urban centers. In the case of Nome, the only cure — an antitoxin — was located over 500 miles away in Anchorage. Add a brutal Alaskan winter that rendered almost all forms of travel impossible into the mix, and death seemed imminent.
Still, a team of dogsled drivers would attempt to spare Nome residents of that end. The mushers pooled their resources and began to traverse the harsh terrain in a relay known as the Great Race of Mercy, or the 1925 serum run to Nome.
With the only path connecting the two towns measuring a staggering 650 miles through the Alaskan wilderness, getting the necessary medication to Nome would have taken over a month — too long of a wait for such serious concerns.
Breaking it up into several stretches, however, would take only a fraction of the time. And so it began on January 27, 1925, with musher “Wild Bill” Shannon.
Picking up the serum in Nenana, which was transported from Anchorage via train, Shannon and his team of dogs powered through the -50 degree temperatures toward Nome. Having lost four of his dogs along his journey, and with a nose which had blackened upon succumbing to frostbite, Shannon handed off the serum, which was relayed several times before reaching a team led by Leonhard Seppala.
A Norweigan-born musher and resident of Nome, Seppala imported a crack team of huskies from Siberia to pull the sled covering his portion of the journey — the most arduous leg of the trip. Seppala’s 12-year-old sled dog and companion Togo led the pack.
On the historic run of 1925, Togo led Seppala’s team over 170 miles in wind chill temperatures reaching as low as -85 F. Over expansive pools of frozen lakes, and climbing 5,000 feet up Little McKinley Mountain, the team journeyed until reaching musher Charlie Olson, who would pass the serum on to Gunnar Kaasen, finishing up the remaining 55 miles of the incredible journey.
With Kaasen we meet Balto, this story’s unlikely hero. Before the serum run, no one would have predicted that the black and white Siberian Husky would go down in history. Balto was a slow-working “scrub dog,” and as such would typically go overlooked when mushers positioned dogs to lead a team.
That changed in the winter of 1925, when Kaasen chose Balto to lead the pack and deliver the serum to Nome residents. They succeeded: Kaaren delivered the lifesaving serum to Dr. Welch of Nome on February 2, just six days after the relay’s start.
Of the 674 miles that 20 mushers and around 150 dogs traveled, Balto and Kaasen only journeyed the last 55. That’s not to say Balto didn’t earn his praise. At one point caught in a blizzard too devastating for Kaasen to see through, Balto led the way and never once steered off course.
Eventually, the dog pulled his team into a town anticipating their arrival. Perhaps because Balto’s furry face entered the anxious town first, Nome residents and the world at large celebrated the canine immediately.
He became a household name in almost no time, and the city of New York honored him with a statue bearing his likeness in Manhattan’s Central Park a year after his return, which still stands today. In 1995, Universal Pictures released an animated children’s film depicting his journey, adding to the preservation of his legacy.
Balto died in 1933 at the age of 14. His body was preserved and can still be seen at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in Cleveland, Ohio.