Balto, sled dog, 1925 - Iditarod Trail Dog Sled Race, Anchorage to Nome,


Alaska ALHN
St. Lawrence, King and Little Diomede Islands                     


The Story of Balto

On January 20, 1925 Nome sent out an urgent telegraph message out. It was calling for antitoxin. Nome's doctor had diagnosed cases of diptheria to many people in the town. Diptheria is a contagious disease that affects the thorat and lungs. Nome's doctors realized that a potentially deadly diphtheria epidemic was poised to sweep through Nome's young children. The only serum that could stop the outbreak was in Anchorage, nearly a thousand miles away. But in the depths of winter, Nome was only accessible by dogsled.

Then, on January 25, 1925 Anchorage replied to Nome by telegraph telling them that a team of sled dogs had to get the medicine in the town of Nenana. That's where the train line ended, and that's as far as the medicine could go. A sled team would have to race 600 miles in order to get the serum to Nome. Soon, a musher embarked from Nenana on the first leg of a remarkable dog-sled relay aimed at delivering the needed serum to Nome. More than 20 mushers took part, battling temperatures that rarely rose above 50 degrees below zero Fahrenheit and hurricane force winds that sometimes blew strong enough to knock over sleds and dogs. Reporters brought news of the race to a world suddenly transfixed by the drama in the far north.

The first sled team driver was a man by the name of Shannon. He raced his dogs 52 miles into the town of Tolovana, where sled driver Kalland took the medicine on another leg of the journey. Kalland then passed the medicine on to Green in Manley Hot Springs, which was a 31 mile journey. Then Green went 28 miles and took it to Fish Lake, where driver Folger took the medicine. Folger then handed off the medicine to Sam Joseph, and he then passed it to Nikoltai, then he gave it to Corning. The snow and the wind had started to pick up, making it harder to get anywhere. But the mushers went on, Corining passed it to Pitkia, who passed it to McCarty, and then he passed it to Edger Nollner. He then passed the medicine on in the town of Galena to George. The mushers went on, Evans, Patsy, Jackscrew, the Koyukuk Indian, Anagick, and Gonangnan. He then gave the medicine to Ivanoff.

Ivanoff's team had darted a reindeer. When he was untangling the dogs' harneess, Leonard Seppala and his dogs, including Togo, the lead dog, apperead. They came to take the serum 91 miles to the next checkpoint. Then, the storm grew worse.

Seppala had to make a decision. He could either go around the Norton Sound or attempt to go across it. Going across it was quicker, but the ice could break at any minute. He decied to take the chance and go across. Togo led them wonderfully across the ice pack. That is, until the ice broke. Seppala then passed the serum to Olson, who then passed it to Kaasen. Balto was the leader of Kaasen's team. Balto was one of Sappela's dogs, but he was thought to not be a very good leader. Had Kaasen known the ferocity of the storm, he would not have chosen Balto to lead. But Balto proved himself a leader. The team raced on. At the next check point, very close to Nome, Kassen found the relief driver asleep, so the team raced on... And so it was that Balto was the lead dog of the final sled team that raced through hurricane-force winds and minus-50-degree temperatures to bring serum to the diphtheria stricken town.

On Febuary 2, 1925 Kaasen's team made it to Nome. The town was saved! The 647 mile trip was made in about 127 hours. Balto and the sled dog team was honored by the citizens of Nome as a hero. A year later, in honor of the epic trek, admirers erected a statue of Balto in New York City's Central Park.

Statue of Balto, Central Park New York City

Balto and the other dogs became international heroes. Balto was suddenly a world-famous celebrity; for two years after the serum run, the dog and some of his teammates traversed the continental United States as part of a traveling show. but the glory showered on them was short-lived.

On a visit to Los Angeles in 1927, a Cleveland businessman discovered the dogs in a "dime-a-look" museum. For the fee of 10 cents, visitors (men only) were allowed into the back room where the dogs were on display. As an animal lover, the Cleveland businessman noticed that the dogs were ill and mistreated. He knew the history of the famous dogs and was outraged.

A bargain was struck to buy the dogs and bring them to Cleveland. The deal was to raise $2,000 in two weeks. With the help of the local media, Cleveland's response was explosive.

Cleveland public school children collected coins in buckets; factory workers passed the hat; hotels, stores and visitors donated what they could to the Balto fund. The Western Reserve Kennel Club added a needed financial boost and the money was raised in 10 days.

On March 19, 1927, Balto and six companions (Tillie, Fox, Sye, Billy, Old Moctoc and Alaska Slim) were triumphantly brought to Cleveland and given a heroes' welcome in a parade through Public Square to City Hall. The honored dogs were then taken to Brookside Zoo (now the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo) where they lived out their lives in dignity. Approximately 15,000 people visited them the first day. Balto died March 14, 1933, at the age of 11. The body was mounted at The Cleveland Museum of Natural History, where it has been kept as a reminder of his gallant race against death.

Long after his death, Balto's popularity lives on. Today, some Alaskan schoolchildren are campaigning to bring Balto back to his home state. The students want his body moved to the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race museum in Wasilla. But Cleveland officials aren't ready to give Balto back, noting he spent more than half his life in their city. There are plans in the works, however, for Balto to return to Alaska as part of a temporary exhibit at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art -- a testament to the strength of Balto's memory and a fitting memorial to his indomitable spirit.

This year (2005) marks the 80th anniversary of what has become known as the "serum run to Nome."


copyright © 2005 by Everette Carr.  All rights reserved.