“You can’t compare it to any other competitive event in the world! A race covering 1000 miles of the roughest, most beautiful terrain Mother Nature has to offer. She throws jagged mountain ranges, frozen river, dense forest, desolate tundra and miles of windswept coast at the mushers and their dog teams. Add to that temperatures far below zero, winds that can cause a complete loss of visibility, the hazards of overflow, long hours of darkness and treacherous climbs and side hills, and you have the Iditarod. A race extraordinaire, a race only possible in Alaska.” That’s straight from the Iditarod website, describing the famous dog sled race known as the “last great race on Earth.” The Iditarod race happens every March as dog teams and their mushers race from Anchorage in south central Alaska to Nome on the Bering Sea coast to the west. The race began in 1973 as a way to save Alaskan sled dog culture as Huskies were being phased out and replaced by snowmobiles. It also sought to preserve the historic Iditarod trail which started as a mail and supply route during the heydays of the Nome gold rush. But did you know, in 1925 a perilous 6 day crossing of the Iditarod was less fun and games and more a matter of life and death as mushers and their heroic dogs raced to deliver a life saving serum to a town on the brink of disaster? Let’s fix that.
Hello, I’m Shea LaFountaine and you’re listening to History Fix where I discuss lesser known true stories from history you won’t be able to stop thinking about. I’m coming at you this week with what I hope will be a more lighthearted story. So much of history is really heavy and sometimes hard to bear, and with the holidays approaching, I figured we could all use something more inspiring, heart warming, so this is that story. But it’s not all fluff. There’s a lot to this story, a deadly epidemic threatening the lives of children, a perilous journey through the snow, and a race against time to deliver a life saving antitoxin. But really it’s a story about man’s best friend, the sled dogs who made this feat possible and two of them in particular, Balto and Togo - underdogs, no pun intended, who rose to the top as the heroes of Nome, Alaska.
So let’s go to Nome. Nome is a picturesque small town in western Alaska. So picture Alaska on a map. Picture the west coast. Nome is about halfway up the west coast. Even today, it’s small with a population of only around 3,500 people. But that wasn’t always the case. At the turn of the 20th century, the population of Nome had exploded to as much as 20,000 over the course of only a few months. But let’s back up even more than that. Before that, Nome was home to indigenous Inupiat people who had lived in that area since prehistory. In 1898 three Scandinavians discovered some gold along Anvil Creek near Cape Nome and this triggered the Nome Gold Rush that would transform the area from a small village of indigenous people to a bustling mining camp known as Anvil City.
Eric Lindblom, John Brynteson, and Jafet Lindberg who were the first to find the gold became known as “the lucky Swedes,” although Lindberg was actually Norwegian. This triggered a stampede of prospectors and gold miners hoping to strike it rich in Anvil City. A lot of these people arrived too late to stake claims along Anvil Creek so they set up camps on the beaches. There they soon discovered that there was gold on the beach. This was incredible because it meant they could reach the gold by boat and didn’t have to haul a bunch of heavy gold and gear through treacherous mountain passages as in the nearby Klondike gold rush. Plus, beaches are public land. No one can claim the beaches so anyone could set up shop there with buckets, shovels, and rockers to separate the gold from the sand.
According to a Smithsonian National Postal Museum article quote “A town exploded into life along the beaches. What had been a prospectors' campsite turned, in a few months, into a town of over 20,000 people. Nome sprung to life almost overnight on the frozen tundra. It transformed into a bustling city filled with congested streets, 100 saloons and dozens of stores, restaurants and "hotels" in tents and quickly constructed wooden buildings.” It goes on to say “In the summer of 1900, Nome was the largest general delivery address in the U.S. postal system. In his book, "Alaska's First Free Mail Delivery in 1900," letter carrier Fred Lockley noted that the postal clerks had to use five filing boxes just to sort letters for people named "Johnson." end quote.
So this place is bustling thanks to that gold. The miners wanted to call it Anvil City officially. They thought it was too confusing to call it Nome since it was about 12 miles away from Cape Nome. So since they were kind of two different places it was weird to give them the same name. But it was officially named Nome anyway and incorporated in 1901. The name, Nome, though is most likely based on a mistake. Apparently a British cartographer had misread some writing on a nautical chart. It actually said ? Name next to an unnamed cape but the map maker read it as C. Nome for Cape Nome, so he named it that. And then the town was named after the cape. So that’s pretty silly.
But that population of 20,000 didn’t last. It decreased dramatically by 1903 as the gold finds and easily accessible mining areas basically dried up. People packed up and went home. By 1920 the population had fallen to only 852 people. This drop was mostly due to gold miners continuing to leave but it was helped along by an influenza outbreak in 1918. So this was the Spanish flu. You probably heard about Spanish flu during all the Covid madness because it was kind of the last time we had a worldwide pandemic like that. Black and white photos of folks wearing masks and such. It was really bad. According to the Pan American Health Organization it claimed more lives in just the US than WWI, WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam war combined. An estimated 50 million people died worldwide from Spanish flu. It hit Alaska pretty late because of how isolated it is but it was particularly bad there. The cold climate led to an increase in pneumonia and other respiratory issues. Plus, when everything froze up in the winter they were isolated, trapped and didn’t have easy access to assistance in fighting the flu.
So the Spanish flu took a toll on the population in Nome and surrounding areas on the Seward Peninsula where it claimed around 750 lives, most of them Alaska natives.
By 1925, the population was sitting at around 1,600 in Nome itself and up to 10,000 in surrounding areas, a mix of indigenous Alaskan natives and white European settlers who had come there mostly to mine gold. Let’s go to Christmas of 1924. That’s when the only doctor in Nome, Curtis Welch, noticed an uptick in the number of children coming in complaining of sore throats. At first he diagnosed them with tonsillitis. But then they started to die. He pretty quickly realized, as more and more children died of sore throats that they were dealing with something much more serious - diphtheria. And yes, this is my lighthearted puff piece episode - children dying on Christmas. Sorry guys, it's unavoidable.
But let’s talk about diphtheria. According to the CDC, diphtheria is a bacterial infection caused by a bacteria called Corynebacterium diphtheriae that makes a toxin. The toxin kills tissue in the respiratory system and this is kind of gross, the dead tissue forms a thick gray coating called a pseudomembrane that builds up in the nose and throat making it hard to breathe and swallow. If the toxin gets into the bloodstream, it can also cause heart, nerve, and kidney damage. It’s extremely contagious, spread through respiratory droplets when people cough or sneeze and it’s most deadly in children, a 20% death rate in children, so one in five, which is why Dr. Welch was mostly seeing child patients with sore throats.
Now, we are vaccinated for diphtheria - the TDAP - tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis. It’s one of those many mandatory vaccines they give babies and, because of that, diphtheria’s not really an issue any more. Back in 1925, they didn’t have the diphtheria vaccine yet. But they did have a way of treating it - an antitoxin. So this was kind of a crazy little science experiment concoction. Scientists grew diphtheria bacteria in a science lab, like in a petri dish. Then they harvested the toxin that it gave off. They then injected horses with this toxin and waited for the horse’s body to produce diphtheria antitoxin as an immune response. They collected blood from the horse, separated out the antitoxin serum from the blood, purified it, and injected people with it as medicine to treat diphtheria. They started using this mess in the 1890s and it worked, which is crazy, mostly without incident. In 1901 some kids died when the antitoxin serum became infected with tetanus. So that was bad and actually partially led to the formation of the Food and Drug Administration, the FDA. But for the most part, if you had diphtheria, this horse blood antitoxin serum was what you needed. You can actually still get this stuff, it’s called DAT for diphtheria antitoxin but you have to like special request it from the CDC. It’s used to counteract the toxin put off by the diphtheria bacteria in combination with antibiotics which kill the bacteria itself. But like I said, diphtheria isn’t really an issue in countries that regularly vaccinate for it.
So, Dr. Welch is seeing all these children come in with sore throats. They start dying. By January 20th, a 3 year old named Billy Barnett comes in and Welch finally realizes it’s diphtheria. It’s definitely diphtheria. And his heart sinks because he knows their stash of antitoxin is expired. It’s like 7 years old. It’s no good anymore. He had requested fresh antitoxin just this past summer, but by the time the request made it to the health commissioner in Juneau, it was too late to get the serum to them before everything iced up for the winter. The port was closed. So all he had was this bottle of expired antitoxin and he was afraid, number one it wouldn’t work, and number two it would actually weaken his patients even more. So he decides not to give it to Billy Barnett and the boy dies the next day. That same day a 7 year old girl comes in with late stage diphtheria. She’s in bad shape. Welch injects her with the expired antitoxin in a last ditch effort to save her life but she dies later that day and his fears are confirmed. The serum is no good.
Welch is like, this is bad, this is really bad. He calls a town meeting and announces that they are in the beginning stages of an epidemic that could become absolutely catastrophic if he doesn’t get his hands on the antitoxin serum. They set up a quarantine and Welch sends a telegram to the Governor of Alaska to get the word out about what’s happening in Nome. He sends a second telegram to the US Public Health Service in Washington DC pretty much begging them for more diphtheria antitoxin serum. This telegram reads quote “An epidemic of diphtheria is almost inevitable here STOP I am in urgent need of one million units of diphtheria antitoxin STOP Mail is only form of transportation STOP I have made application to Commissioner of Health of the Territories for antitoxin already STOP There are about 3000 white natives in the district STOP” end quote. I don’t really know what 3000 white natives means. That seems contradictory. I think he’s referring to the number of white people, but I don’t know why he calls them natives. And it annoys me to no end that he thinks that detail matters like “Get the serum to us ASAP cause, you know, there’s white people here” as if the indigenous people don’t matter. But, I mean this is 1925 so, it was what it was.
The response they get reveals that there are around three hundred thousand units of antitoxin, enough to treat 30 people, stored in Anchorage, Alaska. So it’s not enough but it’s better than nothing. It could hold off the epidemic until more serum can arrive from Seattle. But now the question becomes, how do we get this serum to Nome? As Welch said in his telegram, the only way to reach them now is by mail. It’s January, they are unreachable by sea or air at this point. The only planes they have are from WWI and they have open cockpits and are water cooled so they aren’t operational in sub freezing temperatures. But there is that Iditarod mail and supply route that was set up during the gold rush that runs precisely from Anchorage to Nome. They’re able to get the serum to Nenana by train which is a little less than half of the total trip. But getting it the 600ish miles from Nenana to Nome is the problem. So a dogsled relay is basically the only option.
Typically a team of dogs could make this round trip in around 30 days. That includes a lot of stopping to rest and eat and sleep and whatnot. They don’t have 30 days. So they figure a relay is the fastest way. One team sets off, runs straight as fast as they can to a checkpoint where another team takes over. That way they don’t have to account for time to rest, sleep, etc. This relay included 20 mushers, who are the humans, two thirds of them indigenous and their collective 160 dogs.
Conditions are absolutely horrendous. It’s winter, so they’re down to just 7 hours of sunlight a day. A storm moves in with driving wind and snow, near white out blizzard conditions. Temperatures down to negative 85 degrees fahrenheit (which is negative 65 degrees celsius) with the wind chill and these guys and their dogs just press on. Here’s a play by play of the relay courtesy of alaskaweb.org.
The first musher is named William “Wild Bill” Shannon. He gets the package with the antitoxin serum in it from the train station in Nenana and leaves immediately with his 9 dogs despite terrible weather conditions. The leader of this team is a 5 year old dog named Blackie but the other 8 dogs are pretty inexperienced. Shannon runs alongside the sled for parts of the trip to keep warm and arrives at a roadhouse at 3 am, his face blackened by frostbite. He warms the serum by the fire to keep it from freezing and rests for a few hours. He also leaves three of his dogs there that are in too bad of shape to continue on, and then he sets out again.
He arrives in Tolovana, the next checkpoint at 11 am and hands the serum over to the next musher who’s name is Edgar Kallands. Kallands takes time to warm the serum by the fire again and then heads out and makes the 31 mile trip to the next checkpoint, arriving with his hands frozen to the handle of his sled. They have to pour hot water on them to free him. Dan Green takes over and then he hands it off to Johnny Folger. Now we’re two days in. On the third day, the serum is passed off to 6 different mushers and their teams - Sam Joseph, Titus Nikolai, Dave Corning, Harry Pitka, Bill McCarty, and Edgar Nollner and together they cover 170 miles.
That night, Edgar Nollner hands it off to his brother George Nollner who carries on for 18 miles before passing the serum to Charlie Evans. Evans’ leg of the trip does not go well. He heads out into a patch of ice fog which sounds hellish and two of his dogs collapse. He puts them in the sled and ends up leading the team to the next checkpoint himself. But sadly, when he arrives the two dogs have died. A moment of silence for those poor fur babies.
Tommy Patsy heads out next. Meanwhile there are up to 27 confirmed diphtheria cases in Nome. And remember, they only have enough serum to treat 30 people. So they really need to get it there before that number can climb much higher. A newspaper reports quote “all hope is in the dogs and their heroic drivers. Nome appears to be a deserted city.” end quote. Patsy runs 36 miles and then hands the serum over to a driver who is just known as “Jackscrew” who passes it to Victor Anagick. He takes it 34 miles to Myles Gonangnan whose team then carries it 40 more miles to a checkpoint in Shaktoolik.
At this point, an experienced musher named Leonhard Sepalla is supposed to carry the serum the longest and most dangerous leg of the trip, a shortcut across the frozen Norton Sound. He was specifically chosen for this leg. Leonhard had won the All Alaska Sweepstakes which was a famous dog sled race three times. So he was like the best of the best. He also had an 8 year old daughter back in Nome who was at great risk of contracting and dying from diphtheria if they didn’t get the antitoxin there in time. And, yeah, that’s all the motivation I’d need.
But Sepalla had gotten some bad communication and thought he was running all the way from Nome to this halfway checkpoint at Shaktoolik to meet another guy who was coming halfway from Nenana to Shaktoolik. Apparently they had added a bunch of extra mushers to the relay without communicating that to Sepalla. So he’d already been running for a while before he even got to the checkpoint. Which seems crazy. I mean, maybe tell the main guy the plan at least. So Sepalla’s late. He’s not there yet when Gonangnan arrives but he finds another driver named Henry Ivanoff waiting there just in case. Ivanoff sets out with the serum to try to find Sepalla who he’s sure is nearby. His dogs get distracted by a reindeer, try to run after it, and get all tangled up in their harnesses and leashes and stuff. And I love this because, at the end of the day, they’re still just dogs. I love that they’re doing this important, serious, life or death job but they still take a minute to just be dogs and get all excited about a reindeer. But now Ivanoff is stuck trying to untangle his dogs. Luckily, he spots Sepalla and his dog team passing nearby heading towards the checkpoint, hollers to him, and is able to hand the serum off to him.
Sepalla’s team was led by a 12 year old Siberian sled dog named Togo. Which, 12 is insanely old for this. But he was the clear choice as leader for Sepalla who described him as quote “the best dog that ever traveled the Alaska trail.” But it wasn’t always that way with Togo. He was apparently a really bad puppy. He was wild and mischievous, smaller than the other dogs, and often in bad health. Sepalla was convinced that Togo was a dud and actually gave him away to be a house pet when he was 6 months old. He spent a few weeks in his new home before jumping through a closed window, breaking the glass, and running several miles back to Sepalla’s kennel. Sepalla was impressed, to say the least, and decided that Togo was not, in fact, a dud. He turned out to be an incredible dog team leader which is why Sepalla chose him to lead his leg of the relay even though Togo was basically an old man dog at this point. They cross the frozen Norton Sound overnight, 84 miles straight. It’s pitch black dark, the whipping snow is blinding. Sepalla couldn’t see anything so he just trusted Togo to lead them in the right direction, which he did, navigating through dangerous ice flows in the dark and delivering them safely to the next roadhouse to rest and warm the serum. The ice covering the sound broke just hours after they made it back to land. They set off again into a raging storm with winds up to 65 miles per hour. They climb a 5,000 foot mountain. I’m not making this up. This is insane. They finally get to the next checkpoint after running over 260 total miles and hand the serum off to Charlie Olson.
At this point the storm is so bad they pause the relay for a bit. The winds are at 80 miles per hour. They figure it’s better to delay the arrival of the serum than to lose it entirely. Once Olson gets to okay to run, he sets off but it does not go well. He’s blown off the trail, suffers extreme frostbite on his hands while he attempts to put blankets on the dogs. He arrives at the next checkpoint in bad shape and hands the serum off to Gunnar Kaasen.
Kaasen was kind of like an apprentice to Sepalla, his protege, and he was added pretty last minute to the relay. His team is led by some of Sepalla’s dogs, Balto and Fox. He waits a few hours before leaving because the storm is just so bad but it’s just getting worse and worse as he waits and he’s worried the trail will be hidden by snow drifts so he sets out. The conditions are as bad as it gets. Visibility is poor. At times he can’t even see the dog harnessed closest to the sled through the wind whipped snow. He actually passes the checkpoint. Doesn’t realize it for a couple miles and then makes the decision to just press on to the next one instead of turning back. The winds get so strong they actually flip the sled over, lifting the dogs up into the air. The antitoxin serum flies out of the sled and lands in a snowdrift. Kaasen desperately starts digging through the snow looking for it. He takes his gloves off to feel for it leading to frostbite on his hands but eventually finds the package, rights the sled and sets back out.
When he arrives at the next checkpoint, the last one before Nome, he finds the next musher, Ed Rohn asleep. Instead of waking him up, Kaasen just sets back out for Nome. He worries it will take too long to wake Rohn up and wait for him to harness up his dogs so he just presses on himself, plus the weather has improved some. He rides the last 25 miles to Nome, pulling up around 5:30 am in front of the Merchants and Miners Bank. He collapses in front of a gathering crowd of early risers. Witnesses report that the only words he manages to mumble are quote “damn fine dog.”
And he’s talking about Balto there of course. Balto was one of Sepalla’s dogs but he was never even meant to be on a dog sled team much less lead one. He was bigger and stockier than the other dogs so Sepalla had assigned him as a hauling dog who just carried stuff around. He wasn’t a racing dog. So it was an interesting choice to make Balto the lead dog on this run but he did amazing. He completely surprised everyone. And really, Balto got all the fame and recognition for the whole thing, he was an instant dog celebrity. He even got a statue in New York City’s Central Park and got to attend the unveiling himself.
This annoyed Sepalla to no end who felt that Togo should be the dog to get the recognition. He had led his team through the longest and most treacherous part of the trip. But Balto was kind of stealing all the glory just because he’s the one who came rushing into Nome to deliver the antitoxin just in time to save the town. Some people even think Kaasen chose not to wake up Rohn at that last checkpoint so he could be the one to deliver the serum to Nome and claim all the credit and glory. Another dog, named Fox, helped Balto lead Kaasen’s team too but he wasn’t even mentioned in the newspapers. They thought his name, Fox, would be too confusing. Like readers would think he was a fox and not a dog. So poor Fox got no recognition at all.
But you know, who cares, dogs don’t care about that kind of stuff. That’s petty people worries. Balto and Togo eventually both got their own movies so, you know, whatever. If someone wants to make a movie about Fox, though, that would be great.
But what happens to these dogs after they’re done racing? Well, typically they go to be used as studs to sire new racing dogs. And Togo was. After he retired from racing, Sepalla sent him to live in Maine to be bred as a stud. So, you know he lived out his final days in luxury just enjoying the finer things in life. For Sepalla, it was hard to see Togo go. He remarked quote “It was sad parting on a cold, gray March morning when Togo raised a small paw to my knee as if questioning why he was not going along with me. I never had a better dog than Togo. His stamina, loyalty, and intelligence could not be improved upon. Togo was the best dog that ever traveled the Alaska trail." After Togo died at the ripe old age of 16, Sepalla had his body preserved and mounted and it’s still on display at the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Headquarters museum in Wasilla, Alaska.
Balto couldn’t be bred though, he had been neutered as a puppy because, remember, Sepalla never considered him a racing dog. He was just a work dog so he wouldn’t have been sought after as a stud. Instead, Gunnar Kaasen toured the vaudeville circuit for two years with his team of dogs before selling them to a dime museum in Los Angeles and basically just pocketed the money and moved on, forgetting about them.
During a trip to LA some time later, a Cleveland businessman named George Kimble discovered the dogs and was shocked to find them in bad shape, mistreated and sickly. He was appalled by this and decided to do something about it. He established the “Balto fund” and raised $2000 in ten days to purchase Balto and the rest of his team. When they arrived in Cleveland, they were given a hero’s welcome with a parade through the public square and were sent to live at the local zoo where 15,000 people visited them on their first day in their new home. They lived out the rest of their lives there in comfort, loved and adored by the people of Cleveland.
Balto died at the age of 14 and his body was also taxidermied and is still on display at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, although Alaska has been fighting to have Balto’s body returned there pretty much ever since. According to a PBS article about Balto, school children campaigned way back in 1999 to have Balto’s body moved to the Iditarod Trail Sled dog Race Museum, where Togo’s body is, but Cleveland wasn’t having it. They argued that Balto had spent half his life in Cleveland and should remain there. And to this day, Balto is still in Cleveland so I guess the Alaskan school children lost that one.
So, I hope you’ve enjoyed this lighthearted tale of determination and teamwork this week. Where 20 daring dog sled mushers and their canine friends braved raging blizzards, unstable ice flows, frostbite, and hypothermia to deliver a life saving serum that saved the children of Nome, Alaska from a terrible fate. Maybe you got, at least a little bit of a warm fuzzy feeling from this one. It gives me a whole new appreciation for dogs and their unwavering loyalty to their humans. It makes me wish humans were more deserving of that kind of love and devotion. I feel unworthy.
And I see that unworthiness of humans, in the way Kaasen kind of stole all of the credit and glory for himself and Balto. It detracts from what was otherwise a really beautiful and selfless thing. But human ego always creeps in. We can’t help ourselves. And then, in the end, Kaasen just sort of abandoned his dog team to a miserable fate, mistreated and neglected at a dime museum in Los Angeles. He sold out, cashed them in for a profit and just didn’t care what happened to them, didn’t look back.
Then you look at Sepalla and Togo and it’s a totally different story. They didn’t get the recognition they deserved and, really, they were the true heroes of the whole thing. Sepalla genuinely cared for Togo, he loved that dog, and, though it almost broke him to do it, he gave Togo up to ensure he would live out the rest of his days comfortable and happy.
According to a book about the serum run called “The Cruelest Miles,” Sepalla wrote in his diary at the age of 81, quote “When I come to the end of the trail, I feel that along with my many friends, Togo will be waiting, and I know that everything will be alright.”
Thank you all so very much for listening to History Fix. I hope you found this story interesting and maybe you even learned something new. Be sure to follow my instagram @historyfixpodcast to see some images that go along with this episode and to stay on top of new episodes as they drop. I’d also really appreciate it if you’d rate and follow this podcast on whatever app you’re using to listen, that’ll make it much easier to get your next fix.
Information used in this episode was sourced Encyclopedia Britannica, Smithsonian National Postal Museum, Pan American Health Organization, CBC, the National Library of Medicine, the CDC, alaskaweb.org, Dogtails by Dog Watch, Wikipedia, PBS, History vs. Hollywood, and Sports Illustrated. As always, links to these sources can be found in the show notes.