1925 serum run to Nome
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The 1925 serum run to Nome, also known as the Great Race of Mercy and The Serum Run, was a transport of diphtheria antitoxin by dog sled relay across the U.S. territory of Alaska by 20 mushers and about 150 sled dogs across 674 miles (1,085 km) in 5 ½ days, saving the small town of Nome and the surrounding communities from a developing epidemic.
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 both New York City's Central Park and downtown Anchorage, Alaska, but it was Togo's team who covered much of the most dangerous parts of the route, and ran the farthest, 260 miles (420 km), while Balto and his team covered 55 miles (89 km). The publicity also helped spur an inoculation campaign in the U.S. that dramatically reduced the threat of the disease.
The sled dog was the primary means of transportation and communication in subarctic communities around the world, and the race became both the last great hurrah and the most famous event in the history of mushing, before the first aircraft in the late 1920s and then the snowmobile in the 1960s drove the dog sled almost into extinction. The world famous Iditarod Race was not conceived to commemorate the serum run but as a race that the co-founders hoped would bring sled dogs back to the villages.
Location and geography
Nome, Alaska lies approximately 2 degrees south of the Arctic Circle, and while greatly diminished from its peak of 20,000 inhabitants during the gold rush days at the turn of the 20th century, it was still the largest town in northern Alaska in 1925 with 455 Alaska Natives and 975 settlers of European descent.(p16)
From November to July, the port on the southern shore of the Seward Peninsula of the Bering Sea was icebound and inaccessible by steamship. The only link to the rest of the world during the winter was the Iditarod Trail, which ran 938 miles (1,510 km) from the port of Seward in the south, across several mountain ranges and the vast Alaska Interior before reaching Nome. The primary source of mail and needed supplies in 1925 was the dog sled, but within a decade, bush pilots would become the dominant method of transportation during the winter months.
Outbreak and call for help
In the winter of 1924–1925, Curtis Welch was the only doctor in Nome, who served the town and the surrounding communities; he 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 the hospital's entire batch had expired. However, the replacement shipment did not arrive before the port was closed by ice for the winter, and more could not be shipped in to Nome until spring.(p48)
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 as it is extremely contagious, and he would have expected to see more symptoms in family members, or other cases around town, instead of a few isolated cases. In the next few weeks, as the number of “tonsillitis” cases grew and four children died, whom Welch had not been able to autopsy, he became increasingly concerned about diphtheria.(pp33–36)
By mid-January 1925, Welch officially diagnosed the first case of diphtheria in a three-year-old boy who died only two weeks after first becoming ill. The following day, when a seven-year-old girl presented 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.(pp47–48) Realizing that an epidemic was imminent, that same evening, Welch called Mayor George Maynard to arrange an emergency town council meeting.(pp47–48) 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 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 said:
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 and wiped out about 50 percent of the native 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 disease.(pp42,50)
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 estimated that the serum would only last six days under the brutal conditions on 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.
Mayor Maynard proposed flying the antitoxin by aircraft. In February 1924, the first winter aircraft flight in Alaska had been conducted between Fairbanks and McGrath by Carl Eielson, who flew a reliable De Havilland DH-4 issued by the U.S. Post Office on eight experimental trips. The longest flight was only 260 miles (420 km), the worst conditions were −10 °F (−23 °C) which required so much winter clothing that the plane was almost unflyable, and the plane made several crash landings.
The only planes operating in Alaska in 1925 were three vintage Standard J biplanes belonging to Bennet Rodebaugh's Fairbanks Airplane company (later Wien Air Alaska) The aircraft were dismantled for the winter, had open cockpits, and had water-cooled engines that were unreliable in cold weather. Since both pilots were in the contiguous United States, Alaska Delegate Dan Sutherland attempted to get the authorization to use an inexperienced pilot, Roy Darling.
While potentially quicker, the board of health rejected the option 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, the Anchorage Railroad Hospital found 300,000 forgotten units, after 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 (9 kg). 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 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 to 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 decision outraged William Fentress "Wrong Font" Thompson, publisher of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner and aircraft advocate, who helped line up the pilot and plane. He used his paper to write scathing editorials.
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 miles (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. Telephones and telegraphs 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 kg) package at the train station in Nenana on January 27 at 9:00 pm 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 am, 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 three dogs and left with the remaining 8. The three dogs died shortly after Shannon returned for them, and a fourth may have died as well.
Arrival in Minto
Half-Athabaskan Edgar Kalland arrived in Minto the night before, and was sent back to Tolovana, traveling 70 mi (110 km) the day before the relay. Shannon and his team arrived in bad shape at 11 am, 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 pm.
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. Maynard and Sutherland renewed their campaign for flying the remaining serum by plane. Different proposals included flying a large aircraft 2,000 miles (3,200 km) from Seattle to Nome, carrying a plane to the edge of the pack ice via Navy ship and launching it, and the original plan of flying the serum from Fairbanks. Despite receiving headline coverage across the country, the support of several cabinet departments, and from Arctic explorer Roald Amundsen, the plans were rejected by experienced pilots, the Navy, and Governor Bone. Thompson's editorials waxed virulent against those opposing using airplanes.
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 am. 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, flowing into the Yukon, 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 am; both dogs were dead. Tommy Patsy departed within half an hour.
The serum then parted ways with the Yukon River as the river turned south and the trail crossed the Kaltag Portage west to the coast. Athabascan Jack Nicolai aka "Jackscrew" took it up the first half of the portage to Old Woman Cabin and Victor Anagick of the Inupiat village Unalakleet, having driven up to meet him there, took it down the second half, handing it to his fellow villager Myles Gonangnan on the shores of Norton Sound in Unalakleet on January 31 at 5 am. 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 am, 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."(p203) 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 pm 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."(p205) With the report of Gonangnan's progress on January 31, Welch believed the serum would arrive there in February.
Connection on Norton Sound
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 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).
Henry Ivanoff's team ran into a reindeer and got tangled up just outside Shaktoolik. Seppala still believed he had more than 100 mi (160 km) to the original relay point in Nulato to go and had raced 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!"(p207)
Seppala turned around with the serum but it was dark by the time he got to Ungalik. But with the news of the worsening epidemic Ivanoff had shared, he decided not to stop and once again set out to brave the storm across the 20 miles (32 km) of exposed open ice of the Norton Sound. 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 pm. In one day, they had traveled 84 mi (135 km), averaging 8 mph (13 km/h). The team rested, and departed at 2 am 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]). It had blown out to sea all the ice Seppala had just crossed while they slept. There was still some ice close to shore for the next part of their journey along the coast, but it was rough and starting to break up, too. They stuck close to shore and Togo picked his way carefully until they were back on solid ground. Next they had to cross Little McKinley Mountain (1,200 feet (370 m)), another of the toughest parts of the trail because of the many up-and-down ridges. The total elevation climbed in that section of over 8 miles (13 km) is 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 pm.
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 pm in poor shape. Gunnar Kaasen waited until 10 pm 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 also suffered 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 am. 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 am. 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 ½ hours, which was considered a world record, done in extreme subzero temperatures in near-blizzard conditions and hurricane-force winds. A number of dogs died during the trip.
Margaret Curran from the Solomon roadhouse was infected, which raised fears that the disease might spread from patrons of the roadhouse to other communities. The 1.1 million units had left Seattle on January 31, and were not due by dog sled until February 8. Welch asked for half the serum to be delivered by aircraft from Fairbanks. He contacted Thompson and Sutherland, and Darling made a test flight the next morning. With his health advisor, Governor Bone concluded the cases in Nome were actually going down, and withheld permission, but preparations went ahead. The U.S. Navy moved a minesweeper north from Seattle, and the Signal Corps were ordered to light fires to guide the planes.
By February 3, the original 300,000 units had proved to be still effective, and the epidemic was under control. A sixth death, probably unrelated to diphtheria, was widely reported as a new outbreak of the disease. The batch from Seattle arrived on board the Admiral Watson on February 7. Acceding to pressure, Governor Bone authorized half to be delivered by plane. On February 8 the first half of the second shipment began its trip by dog sled, while the plane failed to start when a broken radiator shutter caused the engine to overheat. The plane failed the next day as well, and the mission was scrapped. Thompson was gracious in his editorials.
The second relay included many of the same drivers, and also faced harsh conditions. Ed Rohn delivered the serum to Nome during another blizzard after a 90 miles (140 km) run on February 15.
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.(footnotes, pp 235, 243)
All participants in the dogsleds received letters of commendation from President Calvin Coolidge, and the Senate stopped work to recognize the event. Each musher during the first relay received a gold medal from the H. K. Mulford Company. The mayor of Los Angeles presented a bone-shaped key to the city to Balto in front of City Hall; silent-film actress Mary Pickford put a wreath around the canine's neck. Poems and letters from children poured in, and spontaneous fundraising campaigns sprang up around the country.
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. A statue of Balto by sculptor Frederick Roth was unveiled in New York City's Central Park during a visit on December 15, 1925. 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.
In October 1926, Seppala took Togo and his team on a tour from Seattle to California, and then across the Midwest to New England, and consistently drew huge crowds. They were featured at Madison Square Garden in New York City for 10 days, and Togo received a gold medal from Roald Amundsen. In New England Seppala's team of Siberian huskies ran in many races, easily defeating the local Chinooks of Arthur Walden. Seppala entered into a partnership with Elizabeth M. Ricker in Poland Spring, Maine, where many of his dogs went to live in retirement and contribute to their breeding program of Siberian sled dogs, including Togo who sired many litters. Seppala visited Togo, and was by his side when he was euthanized on December 5, 1929 at the age of 16. After his death, Seppala had Togo preserved and mounted, and today the dog is on display in a glass case at the Iditarod museum in Wasilla, Alaska. Togo's prowess as a sled dog, also led to his strengths being preserved through breeding, with his descendants contributing to the "Seppala Siberian Sleddog", a sought after working sled dog line, as well as the mainstream show-stock Siberian Husky gene pool.
None of the other mushers received the same degree of attention, though Wild Bill Shannon briefly toured with Blackie. The media largely ignored the Alaska Native mushers, who covered two-thirds of the distance to Nome. According to Edgar Kalland, "it was just an everyday occurrence as far as we were concerned."(p255)
The serum race helped spur the Kelly Act, which was signed into law on February 2. The bill allowed private aviation companies to bid on mail delivery contracts. Technology improved and within a decade, air mail routes were established in Alaska. The last mail delivery by private dog sled under contract took place in 1938, and the last U.S. Post Office dog sled route closed in 1963. Dog sledding remained popular in the rural interior but became nearly extinct when snowmobiles spread in the 1960s. Mushing was revitalized as a recreational sport in the 1970s with the immense popularity of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
While the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which runs more than 1,000 miles (1,600 km) from Anchorage to Nome, is actually based on the All-Alaska Sweepstakes, it has many traditions that commemorate the race to deliver the serum to Nome, especially Seppala and Togo. The honorary musher for the first seven races was Leonhard Seppala. Other serum run participants, including "Wild Bill" Shannon, Edgar Kalland, Bill McCarty, Charlie Evans, Edgar Nollner, Harry Pitka, and Henry Ivanoff have also been honored. The 2005 Iditarod honored Jirdes Winther Baxter, the last known survivor of the epidemic. The position is now known as Leonhard Seppala's Honorary Musher, the Leonhard Seppala Humanitarian Award is given to the musher who provides the best dog care while still remaining competitive, and the Leonhard Seppala Heritage Grant is an Iditarod scholarship. The two races follow the same route from Ruby to Nome.
A reenactment of the serum run was held in 1975, which took 6 days longer than the 1925 serum run, or more than twice the total time. Many of the participants were descendants of the original 20. In 1985, President Ronald Reagan sent a letter of recognition to Charlie Evans, Edgar Nollner, and Bill McCarty, the only remaining survivors. Nollner was the last to die, on January 18, 1999, of a heart attack.
The relay has been immortalized in various media. Shortly before WWII Czech teacher and writer František Omelka was fascinated by the story which resulted in the novella Štafeta (Relay) published in Czech in 1946. As an avid Esperantist, Omelka himself translated it into Esperanto with subsequent translations into German, Dutch, Frisian, Icelandic, Chinese and Japanese being published. There is also an English edition published as Relay by now defunct publishing house Jaspis. In 1976, the story was retold in Race against Death: A True Story of the Far North, by noted children's author Seymour Reit, which was featured in a 1978 episode of The Book Bird, a long-running anthology of children's literature on PBS. The 1995 animated film Balto was loosely based on the events of the final leg of the serum run, although all of the characters besides Balto, and subplots, are fictional. A detailed recounting of the people and events involved in the serum run, including the story of the native mushers and the local nurses who attended to the sick and dying, is given in the 2003 book, The Cruelest Miles: The Heroic Story of Dogs and Men in a Race Against an Epidemic, by Gay and Laney Salisbury. In 2013, a documentary titled Icebound — The Greatest Dog Story Ever Told, focused on the aftermath of the events. The Great Alaskan Race, a 2019 film, produced by Rebel Road Entertainment, is based on the serum run. Togo, produced by Walt Disney Pictures, debuted on December 20, 2019 on Disney+.
Sled dog credit
There is much controversy surrounding Balto's role in the serum run and the statue in Central Park. A premier musher, Seppala ran 170 miles (270 km) east from Nome to just outside Shaktoolik, where he met the serum runner (to his surprise, since he had anticipated having to go all the way to Nulato and back alone), took the handoff, and returned another 91 miles (146 km), having run over 261 miles (420 km) across some of the most dangerous and treacherous parts of the run in total. He then handed the serum off to Charlie Olson. Olson carried it 25 miles (40 km) to Bluff where he turned it over to Gunnar Kaasen. Kaasen was supposed to hand off the serum to Rohn at Port Safety, but Rohn had gone to sleep and Kaasen decided to keep going to Nome. In all, Kaasen and Balto ran a total of 53 miles (85 km). Kaasen maintained that he decided to continue since there were no lights on in the cabin where Rohn was sleeping and he didn't want to waste time, but many, including Rohn based on conversations the two men had before leaving Nome, and other decorated mushers in the surrounding area, thought his decision to not wake Rohn was motivated by a desire to grab the glory for himself and Balto.
According to Togo's musher, Leonhard Seppala, who was also Balto's owner, Balto was a scrub freight dog that he left behind when he set out on the trip. He also asserted that Kaasen's lead dog was actually a dog named Fox, but that news agents of the time thought that Balto was a more newsworthy name. No record exists of Seppala ever having used Balto as a leader in runs or races prior to 1925, and Seppala himself stated Balto "was never in a winning team." Because the pictures and video of Kaasen and Balto taken in Nome were recreated hours after their arrival once the sun had risen, speculation still exists as to whether Balto's position as lead dog was genuine, or was staged or exaggerated for media purposes.
The Central Park statue of Balto was modeled after Balto, but shows him wearing Togo's colors (awards). The inscription reads, "Dedicated to the indomitable spirit of the sled dogs that relayed antitoxin 600 miles over rough ice, across treacherous waters, through arctic blizzards, from Nenana to the relief of stricken Nome." In the last years of his life Seppala was heartbroken by the way the credit had gone to Balto; in his mind, Togo was the real hero of the serum race. According to the National Park Service, in 1960 Seppala said:
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.
... the dog that often gets credit for eventually saving the town is Balto, but he just happened to run the last, 55 miles [89 km] leg in the race. The sled dog who did the lion's share of the work was Togo. His journey, fraught with white-out storms, was the longest by 200 miles [320 km] and included a traverse across perilous Norton Sound — where he saved his team and driver in a courageous swim through ice floes.
Relay participants and distances
|January 27||"Wild" Bill Shannon||Nenana to Minto to Tolovana
Team of 11 Alaskan Malamutes. Around 11:00 pm January 27, 1925, Shannon received the serum and written instructions from the conductor. Temperatures ranged from −40 °F to −62 °F. At 3:00 am, Shannon arrived in Campbell's Roadhouse in Minto, rested for four hours before setting off again, this time with only 8 dogs as three of his dogs, Cub, Jack and Jet, had been injured from the cold. Later, these three dogs ended up dying from lung injuries. Shannon suffered severe facial frostbite.
|52 mi (84 km)|
|January 28||Dan Green||Tolovana to Manley Hot Springs
Temperatures warming to −30 °F, but a 20 mph wind
|31 mi (50 km)|
|Johnny Folger||Manley Hot Springs to Fish Lake
Made run at night and is reported to have made 'good time'. Folger was an Athabascan Native. Met Sam Joseph and his team at a Fish Lake cabin.
|28 mi (45 km)|
|Sam Joseph||Fish Lake to Tanana
A Tanana tribe Native, 35 years old, with a team of 7 Alaskan Malamutes. Recorded Tanana temperature was −38 °F. Covered trail in 2 hours 45 minutes, averaging better than 9 mph. Met by his family and Titus Nickolai.
|26 mi (42 km)|
|January 29||Titus Nikolai||Tanana to Kallands
An Athabascan Native, no information regarding Titus's team, time, or travel along the trail. Met Dave Corning at Kallands.
|34 mi (55 km)|
|Dave Corning||Kallands to Nine Mile Cabin
Reported to have averaged 8 mph for the 24 miles. Again no mention of exact times or the team. Met by Edgar Kalland at Nine Mile Cabin.
|24 mi (39 km)|
|Edgar Kalland||Nine Mile Cabin to Kokrines
A musher for the U.S. mail service. Met by Harry Pitka at Kokrines.
|30 mi (48 km)|
|Harry Pitka||Kokrines to Ruby
Seven dogs with trail in good condition. Night run with speeds averaging greater than 9 mph.
|30 mi (48 km)|
|Bill McCarty||Ruby to Whiskey Creek
Lead dog: Prince. Severe hour-long snow storm. Arrived at Whiskey Creek about 10:00 am Temperature −40 °F. Met by Edgar Nollner.
|28 mi (45 km)|
|Edgar Nollner||Whiskey Creek to Galena
Lead dog: 8 year-old Dixie. Nollner, a 21-year-old from Galena, mushed 7 malamutes and was met by his brother George.
|24 mi (39 km)|
|January 30||George Nollner||Galena to Bishop Mountain
Newlywed George appears to have made the trip using the same team Edgar used to cover the previous 24 miles.
|18 mi (29 km)|
|Charlie Evans||Bishop Mountain to Nulato
Half Athabascan Native, Evans, 21 years old, left Bishops Mountain at 5:00 am with a reported temperature of −64 °F. Arrived at Nulato at 10 am covering 30 miles in 5 hours running a 9 dog team. Two borrowed dogs suffered frozen groins on the trip.
|30 mi (48 km)|
|Tommy "Patsy" Patson||Nulato to Kaltag
Patson, a Koyukuk Native, also a mail carrier, ran a fairly straight trail, setting the fastest speed recorded during the Serum Race, covering 36 miles in 3+1⁄2 hours at an average speed of more than 10 mph.
|36 mi (58 km)|
|Jack "Jackscrew" Nicolai||Kaltag to Old Woman Shelter
An Alaskan Athabaskan, Jackscrew was a small man known for his unusual strength. During his partial night run, he jogged to lighten the sled until passing the Kaltag Divide, then a downhill trail toward Norton Sound. He arrived at Old Woman Cabin at 9:10 pm Friday evening, averaging almost 6 mph for 40 miles of difficult trail.
|40 mi (64 km)|
|Victor Anagick||Old Woman Shelter to Unalakleet
Anagick, an Eskimo Native, was sent from Unalakleet with an 11 dog team. He covered the 34 mile trail in 6 hours arriving at 3:30 am Saturday. The serum was now 207 miles from Nome.
|34 mi (55 km)|
|January 31||Myles Gonangnan||Unalakleet to Shaktoolik||40 mi (64 km)|
|Henry Ivanoff||Shaktoolik to just outside Shaktoolik
Part Russian Eskimo, Ivanoff started toward Golovin. About a half mile out of Shaktoolik, he had to settle a fight in his team. While he was stopped he saw Seppala's Siberian Husky team approaching from the other direction. He passed the serum to Seppala a short distance out of town.
|0.5 mi (0.8 km)|
|Leonhard Seppala||Just outside Shaktoolik to Ungalik to Isaac's Point to Golovin
Lead dogs: Togo and Fritz, team of 20 Siberian Huskies, some of which he dropped off in pairs at various roadhouses to be used as reinforcements for tired teams on the return trip. Forty-eight-year-old Seppala, with his chosen team of his 20 best dogs, had left Nome with the intent of intercepting the serum at Nulato, unaware that the relays had been faster. Leaving Isaac's Point on the north side of Norton Bay that morning, he traveled the 43 miles to just outside Shaktoolik, meeting Ivanoff. He turned his team around into the wind with a temperature of −30 °F and darkness. Seppala risked the 20 mile sea ice crossing between Cape Denbigh and Point Dexter in a blinding blizzard. Togo's sense of smell permitted them to stay on course and got them to their stopping point on the North shore of Norton Bay, at an Eskimo sod igloo. Seppala fed the dogs and warmed the serum, hoping the blizzard would lessen. Early Sunday morning with −30 °F temperatures, deadly winds, and the storm not lessening, he reached Dexter's Roadhouse at Golovin with completely exhausted dogs. The serum was now 78 miles from Nome.
|91 mi (146 km)|
|February 1||Charlie Olson||Golovin to Bluff
Lead dog: Jack, team of 7 Alaskan Malamutes. Olsen had left Gunnar Kaasen at the Olson Roadhouse and traveled to Golovin to await the serum. He left Golovin at 3:15 Sunday afternoon with temperatures of −30 °F with an estimated 40 mph wind. He was hit by gusts that drove him and the team off the trail. Because of the severe wind chill, Olsen stopped, putting blankets on each dog. Two dogs suffered badly frozen groins. He arrived at Olson's Roadhouse at about 7:30 pm, surprising Gunnar Kaasen who thought Olsen might have stopped to wait out the storm.
|25 mi (40 km)|
|Gunnar Kaasen||Bluff to Safety to Nome
Lead dogs Balto and Fox. Forty-two-year-old Kaasen and his team of 13 of Leonhard Seppala's backup dogs were sent from Nome to Bluff to await the serum, while Ed Rohn was sent to Pt. Safety. With chest-deep snow drifts and glare ice, he was unable to see the trail and relied on Balto to guide the sled. A message was sent to the village of Solomon instructing Kaasen to wait out the storm there. Due to the severity of the storm, Kaasen missed the village as Balto kept them on the main trail passing to the south. While crossing Bonanza flat the sled was flipped by the wind, ejecting the serum. After searching in the dark on hands and knees, Kaasen found the package and continued. He arrived at Safety sometime after 2:00 am Sunday.
Musher Ed Rohn, who was supposed to take the serum the final leg into Nome, was asleep expecting Kaasen to be held up waiting out the blizzard. Kaasen, deciding not to wake Rohn and knowing the time it would take to prepare the dogs and sled for travel, began the final 21 mile leg. He arrived in Nome around 5:30 am for a total time of seven and a half hours.
|53 mi (85 km)|
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