On this date in 1925 the Norwegian musher Gunnar Kaasen and his lead dog Balto arrived on Front Street in Nome at 5:30 a.m., completing what is now known as the 1925 serum run to Nome, also known as the Great Race of Mercy. The serum run involved a dog sled relay across the U.S. territory of Alaska by 20 mushers and about 150 sled dogs crossing 674 miles (1,085 km) in five and a half days over brutal territory in savage weather conditions, to deliver ampoules of diphtheria antitoxin to the town to avert a disastrous epidemic. The ports were iced in, flying was impossible due to weather conditions, and there were no rail lines. Dog sled was the only option, and required almost superhuman effort on the part of the mushers to ensure that the serum arrived in under 6 days before it expired.
Both the mushers and their dogs were portrayed as heroes in the newly popular medium of radio, and received headline coverage in newspapers across the United States. Balto, the lead sled dog on the final stretch into Nome, became the most famous canine celebrity of the era after Rin Tin Tin, and his statue is a popular tourist attraction in New York City’s Central Park. The publicity also helped spur an inoculation campaign in the U.S. that dramatically reduced the threat of diphtheria. My account of the serum run is rather lengthy, but maybe you will excuse my long-windedness this once. The feat was truly epic.
In the winter of 1924–25, the only doctor in Nome, a town of fewer than 2,000 people (down from a peak of 20,000 in gold rush days), and the surrounding communities was Curtis Welch, who was supported by four nurses at the 25-bed Maynard Columbus Hospital. Several months earlier, Welch had placed an order for more diphtheria antitoxin after discovering that hospital’s entire batch had expired. However, the shipment did not arrive before the port closed for the winter and he would not be able to order more until spring. In December 1924, several days after the last ship left the port, Welch treated a few children for what he first diagnosed as sore throats or tonsillitis, initially dismissing diphtheria since it is extremely contagious and he would have expected to see the same symptoms in their family members or other cases around town. In the next few weeks, as the number of tonsillitis cases grew, and four children died whom he had not been able to autopsy, Welch became increasingly concerned about diphtheria.
By mid-January 1925, Welch officially diagnosed the first case of diphtheria in a 3-year old boy who died only two weeks after first becoming ill. The following day, when a 7-year old girl presented with the same tell-tale symptoms of diphtheria, Welch attempted to administer some of the expired antitoxin to see if it might still have any effect, but the girl died a few hours later. Realizing that an epidemic was imminent, that same evening, Welch called mayor George Maynard to arrange an emergency town council meeting. The council immediately implemented a quarantine. The following day, on January 22, 1925, Welch sent radio telegrams to all other major towns in Alaska alerting them of the public health risk and he also sent one to the U.S. Public Health Service in Washington, D.C. asking for assistance. His message to the Public Health Service read:
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.
Despite the quarantine, there were over 20 confirmed cases of diphtheria and at least 50 more at risk by the end of January. Without antitoxin, it was expected that in the surrounding region’s population of around 10,000 people, the mortality rate could be close to 100 percent. A previous influenza pandemic of the so-called “Spanish flu” had hit the area in 1918 and 1919 wiped out about 50 percent of the Inuit population of Nome, and 8 percent of the native population of Alaska. More than 1,000 people died in northwest Alaska, and double that across the state. The majority were Alaska Natives who did not have resistance to either of these diseases.
At the January 24 meeting of the board of health superintendent Mark Summers of the Hammon Consolidated Gold Fields proposed a dogsled relay, using two fast teams. One would start at Nenana and the other at Nome, and they would meet at Nulato. The trip from Nulato to Nome normally took 30 days, although the record was nine. Welch calculated that the serum would only last six days under the brutal conditions of the trail. Summers’ employee, the Norwegian Leonhard Seppala, was chosen for the 630-mile (1,014 km) round trip from Nome to Nulato and back. He had previously made the run from Nome to Nulato in a record-breaking four days, won the All-Alaska Sweepstakes three times, and had become something of a legend for his athletic ability and rapport with his Siberian huskies. His lead dog, the 12-year-old Togo, was equally famous for his leadership, intelligence, and ability to sense danger.
While potentially quicker, the board of health rejected the option of flying in the antitoxin because aircraft were not reliable enough to make the trip, and voted unanimously for the dogsled relay. Seppala was notified that evening and immediately started preparations for the trip. The U.S. Public Health Service had located 1.1 million units of serum in West Coast hospitals which could be shipped to Seattle, and then transported to Alaska. The Alameda would be the next ship north, and would not arrive in Seattle until January 31, and then would take another 6 to 7 days to arrive in Seward. On January 26, 300,000 forgotten units were discovered in Anchorage Railroad Hospital, when the chief of surgery, John Beeson, heard of the need. The supply was wrapped in glass vials, then padded quilts, and finally a metallic cylinder weighing a little more than 20 pounds. At Governor Scott Bone’s order, it was packed and handed to conductor Frank Knight, who arrived in Nenana on January 27. While not sufficient to defeat the epidemic, the 300,000 units could hold it at bay until the larger shipment arrived.
The temperatures across the Interior were at 20-year lows due to a high-pressure system from the Arctic, and in Fairbanks the temperature was −50 °F (−46 °C). A second system was burying the Panhandle, as 25 mph (40 km/h) winds swept snow into 10-foot (3.05 m) drifts. Travel by sea was hazardous, and across the Interior most forms of transportation shut down. In addition, there were limited hours of daylight to fly, due to the polar night. While the first batch of serum was traveling to Nenana, Governor Bone gave final authorization for the dog relay, but ordered Edward Wetzler, the U.S. Post Office inspector, to arrange a relay of the best drivers and dogs across the Interior. The teams would travel day and night until they handed off the package to Seppala at Nulato.
The mail route from Nenana to Nome spanned 674 miles (1,085 km) in total. It crossed the barren Alaska Interior, following the Tanana River for 137 miles (220 km) to the village Tanana at the junction with the Yukon River, and then following the Yukon for 230 miles (370 km) to Kaltag. The route then passed west 90 miles (140 km) over the Kaltag Portage to Unalakleet on the shore of Norton Sound. The route then continued for 208 miles (335 km) northwest around the southern shore of the Seward Peninsula with no protection from gales and blizzards, including a 42 mile (68 km) stretch across the shifting ice of the Bering Sea.
Wetzler contacted Tom Parson, an agent of the Northern Commercial Company, which contracted to deliver mail between Fairbanks and Unalakleet. Telephone and telegrams turned the drivers back to their assigned roadhouses. The mail carriers held a revered position in the territory, and were the best dog mushers in Alaska. The majority of relay drivers across the Interior were native Athabaskans, direct descendants of the original dog mushers.
The first musher in the relay was “Wild Bill” Shannon, who was handed the 20 pounds (9.1 kg) package at the train station in Nenana on January 27 at 9:00 p.m. AKST by night. Despite a temperature of −50 °F (−46 °C), Shannon left immediately with his team of 11 inexperienced dogs, led by Blackie. The temperature began to drop, and the team was forced onto the colder ice of the river because the trail had been destroyed by horses. Despite jogging alongside the sled to keep warm, Shannon developed hypothermia. He reached Minto at 3 a.m., with parts of his face black from frostbite. The temperature was −62 °F (−52 °C). After warming the serum by the fire and resting for four hours, Shannon dropped 3 dogs and left with the remaining 8. The 3 dogs died shortly after Shannon returned for them.
Half-Athabaskan Edgar Kalland arrived in Minto the night before, and was sent back to Tolovana, traveling 70 miles (110 km) the day before the relay. Shannon and his team arrived in bad shape at 11 a.m., and handed over the serum. After warming the serum in the roadhouse, Kalland headed into the forest. The temperature had risen to −56 °F (−49 °C), and according to at least one report the owner of the roadhouse at Manley Hot Springs had to pour water over Kallands’ hands to get them off the sled’s handlebar when he arrived at 4 p.m. No new cases of diphtheria were diagnosed on January 28, but two new cases were diagnosed on January 29. The quarantine had been obeyed but lack of diagnostic tools and the contagiousness of the strain rendered it ineffective. More units of serum were discovered around Juneau the same day. While no count exists, the estimate based on weight is roughly 125,000 units, enough to treat 4 to 6 patients. The crisis had become headline news in newspapers, including San Francisco, Cleveland, Washington D.C., and New York, and spread to the radio sets which were just becoming common. The storm system from Alaska hit the contiguous United States, bringing record lows to New York, and freezing the Hudson River.
A fifth death occurred on January 30. In response, Bone decided to speed up the relay and authorized additional drivers for Seppala’s leg of the relay, so they could travel without rest. Seppala was still scheduled to cover the most dangerous leg, the shortcut across Norton Sound, but the telephone and telegraph systems bypassed the small villages he was passing through, and there was no way to tell him to wait at Shaktoolik. The plan relied on the driver from the north catching Seppala on the trail. Summers arranged for drivers along the last leg, including Seppala’s colleague Gunnar Kaasen.
From Manley Hot Springs, the serum passed through largely Athabascan hands before George Nollner delivered it to Charlie Evans at Bishop Mountain on January 30 at 3 a.m. The temperature had warmed slightly, but at −62 °F (−52 °C) was dropping again. Evans relied on his lead dogs when he passed through ice fog where the Koyukuk River had broken through and surged over the ice, but forgot to protect the groins of his two short-haired mixed breed lead dogs with rabbit skins. Both dogs collapsed with frostbite, with Evans having to take their place himself pulling the sled. He arrived at 10 a.m.; both dogs were dead. Tommy Patsy departed within half an hour.
The serum then crossed the Kaltag Portage in the hands of Jack Nicolai aka “Jackscrew” and the Inuit Victor Anagick, who handed it to his fellow Inuit Myles Gonangnan on the shores of the Sound, at Unalakleet on January 31 at 5 a.m. Gonangnan saw the signs of a storm brewing, and decided not to take the shortcut across the dangerous ice of the Sound. He departed at 5:30 a.m., and as he crossed the hills, “the eddies of drifting, swirling snow passing between the dog’s legs and under the bellies made them appear to be fording a fast running river.” The whiteout conditions cleared as he reached the shore, and the gale-force winds drove the wind chill to −70 °F (−57 °C). At 3 p.m. he arrived at Shaktoolik. Seppala was not there, but Henry Ivanoff was waiting just in case.
On January 30, the number of cases in Nome had reached 27 and the antitoxin was depleted. According to a reporter living in Nome, “All hope is in the dogs and their heroic drivers… Nome appears to be a deserted city.” With the report of Gonangnan’s progress on January 31, Welch believed the serum would arrive there in February. Leonhard Seppala and his dog sled team, with his lead dog Togo, traveled 91 miles (146 km) from Nome from January 27 to January 31 into the oncoming storm. They took the shortcut across the Norton Sound, and headed toward Shaktoolik. The temperature in Nome was a relatively warm −20 °F (−29 °C), but in Shaktoolik the temperature was estimated at −30 °F (−34 °C), and the gale force winds causing a wind chill of −85 °F (−65 °C). Togo ran 350 miles for his part of the run.
Henry Ivanoff’s team ran into a reindeer and got tangled up just outside Shaktoolik. Seppala still believed he had more than 100 miles (160 km) to go and was racing to get off the Norton Sound before the storm hit. He was passing the team when Ivanoff shouted, “The serum! The serum! I have it here!” With the news of the worsening epidemic, Seppala decided to brave the storm and once again set out across the exposed open ice of the Norton Sound when he reached Ungalik, after dark. The temperature was estimated at −30 °F (−34 °C), but the wind chill with the gale force winds was −85 °F (−65 °C). Togo led the team in a straight line through the dark, and they arrived at the roadhouse in Isaac’s Point on the other side at 8 p.m. In one day, they had traveled 84 mi (135 km), averaging 8 mph (13 km/h). The team rested, and departed at 2 a.m. into the full power of the storm.
During the night the temperature dropped to −40 °F (−40 °C), and the wind increased to storm force (at least 65 mph (105 km/h)). The team ran across the ice while following the shoreline. They returned to shore to cross Little McKinley Mountain, climbing 5,000 feet (1,500 m). After descending to the next roadhouse in Golovin, Seppala passed the serum to Charlie Olsen on February 1 at 3 p.m. On February 1, the number of cases in Nome rose to 28. The serum en route was sufficient to treat 30 people. With the powerful blizzard raging and winds of 80 mph (130 km/h), Welch ordered a stop to the relay until the storm passed, reasoning that a delay was better than the risk of losing it all. Messages were left at Solomon and Point Safety before the lines went dead. Olsen was blown off the trail, and suffered severe frostbite in his hands while putting blankets on his dogs. The wind chill was −70 °F (−57 °C). He arrived at Bluff on February 1 at 7 p.m. in poor shape. Gunnar Kaasen waited until 10 p.m. for the storm to break, but it only got worse and the drifts would soon block the trail so he departed into a headwind.
Kaasen traveled through the night, through drifts, and river overflow over the 600-foot (183 m) Topkok Mountain. Balto led the team through visibility so poor that Kaasen could not always see the dogs harnessed closest to the sled. He was two miles (3 km) past Solomon before he realized it, and kept going. The winds after Solomon were so severe that his sled flipped over and he almost lost the cylinder containing the serum when it fell off and became buried in the snow. He acquired frostbite when he had to use his bare hands to feel for the cylinder.
Kaasen reached Point Safety ahead of schedule on February 2, at 3 a.m. Ed Rohn believed that Kaasen and the relay was halted at Solomon, so he was sleeping. Since the weather was improving, it would take time to prepare Rohn’s team, and Balto and the other dogs were moving well, Kaasen pressed on the remaining 25 miles (40 km) to Nome, reaching Front Street at 5:30 a.m. Not a single ampule was broken, and the antitoxin was thawed and ready by noon.
Together, the teams covered the 674 miles (1,085 km) in 127 and a half hours, which was considered a world record, incredibly done in extreme subzero temperatures in near-blizzard conditions and hurricane-force winds. The death toll from diphtheria in Nome is officially listed as either 5, 6, or 7, but Welch later estimated there were probably at least 100 additional cases among “the Eskimo camps outside the city. The Natives have a habit of burying their children without reporting the death.” Forty-three new cases were diagnosed in 1926, but they were easily managed with the fresh supply of serum.
Gunnar Kaasen and his team became celebrities and toured the West Coast from February 1925 to February 1926, and even starred in a 30-minute film entitled Balto’s Race to Nome. Balto and the other dogs later became part of a sideshow and lived in horrible conditions until they were rescued by George Kimble, who organized a fundraising campaign by the children of Cleveland, Ohio. On March 19, 1927, the dogs received a hero’s welcome as they arrived at their permanent home at the Cleveland Zoo. Because of his age, Balto was euthanised on March 14, 1933, at the age of 14. He was mounted and placed on display in the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
Despite the attention lavished on Kaasen and Balto, there were many mushers who considered Seppala and Togo to be the true heroes of the run, as they covered the longest and most hazardous leg. I’d say that it is not a contest. The essence of the serum run was teamwork. Every single one of the dogs and men who made the run is a hero in my book.
I’ve covered Arctic (and Antarctic) food rations in previous posts which you can check out here:
Today I thought I’d look to what contemporary mushers pack for rations for the annual Iditarod run which celebrates mushers of all eras, including those on the serum run. On the Iditarod run mushers are allowed to pack drop bags for various points on the route. Also there are places where they can stop for meals. This website contains a recipe for the meals that Kirsten Dixon routinely makes for the mushers:
To accommodate the nonstop schedule and the number of people we feed, we’ve designed a one-plate menu that’s crafted with the athlete in mind.
First, we make homemade corn tortillas, adding in Manchego cheese from Spain and a little cumin to the dough. Manchego is delicious mixed into corn tortillas and it is also a little joke on our part. Manchego is a slightly nutty-tasting sheep’s milk cheese from La Mancha, the home of Don Quixote (and, in fact, Cervantes even mentions it in his book). I am not saying that I think people who walk, bike or dog mush to Nome are nutty, or on a Quixotic quest, but it seems a good fit.
We serve our homemade tortillas with black beans seasoned with fresh orange juice and spices. Black beans are always in our pantry and we use them for all sorts of dishes. If we make too many black beans for our racer meals, we can always create a hearty black bean soup or a spicy sausage-filled Brazilian feijoada (pronounced fay-jwa-da) served with a bowl of salted and fried greens. Or, we can make vegetarian burgers for the crew.
We make basmati rice, an Indian long-grain rice, because it holds up during our sleepless nights when racers are arriving at all hours hoping for a hot meal. We add in a half a cup of yogurt to our basmati rice for a little extra flavor. Sometimes we sauté onion and cardamom pods and add these in to the pot. And in summer, we throw in a handful of herbs such as cilantro or mint.
Finally, to our musher meal, we add a single fried egg on top. These aren’t just any eggs. They are fresh eggs from our chicken coop.
The corn tortilla recipe is on the website. This meal amuses me because I have read other accounts of mushers packing breakfast burritos in their drop boxes. I can’t think of a meal less fitting for the Arctic tundra that tortillas with eggs and beans. I don’t mean fitting in a nutritional sense, I mean in a cultural sense. Next thing you know, mushers will be wearing ponchos and sombreros !!