Balto & Togo: The History of the Nome Serum Run

Balto & Togo: The History of the Nome Serum Run

Balto & Togo: The History of the Nome Serum Run

Alaska’s stark and unforgiving beauty formed the backdrop to the epic Nome serum run. The years go by, but this iconic moment in history remains close to the hearts of many worldwide. In January 1925, the remote port of Nome, Alaska, suffered a brutal winter. Dr. Curtis Welch began to notice symptoms of diphtheria among the town’s children. The weather was unrelenting — planes could not fly, and trains couldn’t navigate the ice-ridden tracks. The closest diphtheria was hundreds of miles away.

The heroic actions that followed have enchanted generations — a testament to human nature’s resilience and our canine counterparts’ unwavering loyalty, stamina and courage. Every year, on March 3, teams of sled dogs run the Iditarod trail to commemorate their unbelievable achievements. 

In This Article

The History of Working Dogs

There is no way of tracing how far back humanity’s relationship with dogs goes. Every year, archaeologists discover new information about how long dogs have worked alongside human beings. The partnership is at least 8,000 years old — possibly more. Archaeologists theorize that the domestication of dogs started between 20 and 40 thousand years ago, but it was a while before human beings began putting dogs to work.

Ust’-Polui in the Siberian arctic is widely believed to be home to the first depiction of a sled dog. The site is 2,000 years old. Sled dog teams have shaped modern culture in the north, yet, surprisingly, we know little about their roots. We know domestic dogs have been central to human life for millennia and that the modern working sled dog has its roots in its Inuit ancestors, who pulled sleds 2,000 years ago. Genetic testing shows the relationships between modern sled dogs and their ancient ancestors. 

Today’s working dog comes in many forms, from police dogs to herding, emotional support and therapy dogs to dog sports. The sled dog breeds — Siberian Huskies, Alaskan Malamutes, Samoyeds, Eskimo Dogs and Laikas — arguably represent some of the best modern dog breeds. Their strength, loyalty, courage and stamina remain as powerful as it was on that fateful serum run in 1925. 

Sled Racing in Alaska

Sled Racing in Alaska

Siberian Huskies were imported to Nome for racing, and Musher Leonhard Seppala was already considered one of the best in Alaska then. He made his business in dogs and was a breeder and avid racer. The serum run skyrocketed the sport in many ways and is now an integral part of Alaskan culture. People worldwide come and watch the race every year as avid mushers, and their intrepid dogs take to the snow. 

Joe Redington, Sr. conceived of this extreme sport. The world was changing, and technology was coming to the fore. The era of sled dogs seemed to be coming to an end. Determined to keep that from happening, he conceived of a challenging, long-distance race to revitalize the use of sled dogs and preserve the Iditarod trail as a part of history. 

Redington’s dream came true and more. The Iditarod was the first race of its kind. In its rugged and unparalleled beauty, the race was established in Alaska as the center of long-distance dog racing. Dog sled racing remains a popular sport worldwide, but the Iditarod is like the Olympics of the sport, a stamp of honor for all mushers with the tenacity and fortitude to compete. 

The History of Togo

Togo was an undersized and sick puppy, and Seppala initially saw him as a useless example of the breed. He gave Togo to a neighbor, but Togo wasn’t having it. He flung himself through a glass window and ran home, determined to reunite with his master. Seppala found Togo a challenge — the puppy was enthralled with the sled dogs around him and although too young for a harness, would frolic amongst the adult dogs during work. He got into all sorts of trouble, and eventually, a despairing Seppala decided to let him be a sled dog. Although only eight months old, Togo was the lead dog by the end of his first sled run. 

Togo became a local celebrity, leading his master to victory in many races. In January 1925, neither Seppala nor his trusted dog was in their prime. The town pinned their hopes on them all the same — they led the relay of dog sled teams into the blizzard. Togo led a 20-dog team through the blistering cold.

Seppala did not know where the others mushers and their dogs were. By complete chance, he ran into fellow musher Henry Ivanoff, who had the serum in hand. On the return trip, Togo saved his master and the other dogs after they became stranded on an ice floe. Seppala threw him across feet of water and instructed him to pull the floe to land. The line snapped, but the exceptional dog grabbed it in his teeth and pulled his team to safety. They made the handoff of the serum in Golovin, a mere 78 miles from Nome. 

The History of the Nome Serum Run

The History of the Nome Serum Run

When the Diphtheria outbreak began, Dr. Curtis Welch — the only doctor in Nome — knew the town was in severe danger. He had ordered the Diphtheria antitoxin, but the precious cargo hadn’t made it to the isolated village before the ports closed for the winter. Welch communicated their desperate situation and discovered 300,000 vials of the antitoxin serum were sitting in Anchorage. A train would take them as far as Nenana, but there was no transport to Nome. The weather was too dangerous for airplanes to get through, so mushers and their dogs were the town’s last chance. 

The Iditarod trail was the last remaining connection between Nome and the train station at Nenana, a dog sled run that would normally take a month to complete — far too long for the infected children in Nome. Twenty mushers volunteered to form a dog sled relay in what would come to be known as the ‘Great race of Mercy.’ Seppala and Togo were among them, along with another musher, Gunnar Kaasen and his inexperienced three-year-old, Balto. 

The Dog Sled Teams’ Journey

The serum arrived at Nenana on the night of January 27. The first musher in the relay, William “Wild Bill” Shannon, set out that same night, one of many braving -85 degree temperatures and gale force winds. Shannon led his dogs across the frozen river, running alongside them to keep his body temperature up. Despite his efforts, he developed hypothermia and frostbite on parts of his face by the time he completed his 52-mile leg. He lost three dogs on the journey. 

Edgar Kelland was the next musher up, receiving the package from Tolvana. His team traveled the 31 miles to Manley Hot Springs with one challenge — his hands had frozen over the sled’s handlebar, and people had to pour hot water over them to free him. The serum passed through a few hands between the hot springs and Bishop mountain. Edgar Nollner was the next musher, and in his haste to get the serum to Nome, he forgot to cover his lead dogs’ vulnerable areas. Both dogs collapsed of frostbite, and Noller had no choice but to pull the sled himself in their place. Neither dog made it through their leg of the journey. 

The following two Mushers, Tommy Patsy and Jack Nicolai, carried the serum from Kaltag to Norton Sound. By this time, it was January 31, and the number of Diphtheria cases was rising. Leonhard Seppala, Togo and their team departed from Nome to meet the incoming teams, chosen to complete the most difficult part of the journey — a shortcut across Norton Sound. They traveled 170 miles in three days through some of the most dangerous terrain known to man. Togo remained a fearless lead dog through rough hills, ice and over the frozen water. He met up with Ivanoff and collected the serum, but a storm was rolling in. 

Making the return in the dark, windy terrain was suicidal, but Seppala decided to push through. He could hardly see but trusted Togo to navigate the icebound route as they made it back to the coastline. Then began an 8-mile climb over the summit of Little McKinley. Seppala passed the serum on to Charlie Olson in Golovin on February 1. He and his dogs had pushed themselves to the limit, covering 260 miles in four days. 

Gunnar Kaasen and Balto

Gunnar Kaasen picked up the serum 25 miles later. The blizzard had become unbearable, and Kaasen feared he would no longer be able to see the trail if he waited. He and his sled dog team plunged on, with his inexperienced three-year-old lead dog, Balto, at the helm. He traveled through the night, but visibility was so poor that he passed the town of Solomon, where he was supposed to give the antitoxin to the next musher. He decided to carry on despite realizing his mistake. Without warning, a massive gust of wind flipped his sled, catapulting the antitoxin into the snow. Kaasen removed his gloves and dug for the cylinder with his bare hands, so he would know when he made contact. 

Kaasen reached Point safety earlier than planned, and the next musher, Ed Rohn, was still asleep. Kaasen decided to press on even further, believing that waking Rohn would slow the process down. He covered the remaining 25 miles to Nome, reaching the town at 5:30 a.m. on February 2. 

After the Journey

Three weeks later, Curtis Welch had administered the antitoxin, and Diphtheria cases had subsided. In the meantime, many of the original mushers had taken part in a second sled run to retrieve the second batch. Seppala, Kaasen and their lead dogs were instant celebrities, touring the country and drawing huge crowds. 

Balto and Togo lived out the rest of their days in comfort, and statues memorializing their heroism stand to this day. The Iditarod sled dog race takes place each year to commemorate the staggering efforts of the mushers and their loyal dogs — a testament to the strong bond between humanity and their canine companions and the bravery and resilience it took to save the town of Nome. 

Where Balto Comes In

Where Balto Comes In

The Nome serum run isn’t complete without Balto’s history. Many didn’t believe in Balto when Gunnar Kaasen chose him as his lead dog. Leonhard Seppala bred, raised and trained Balto, but chose not to race him. He was just as skeptical as everyone else when Kaasen chose Balto as a lead dog. 

Balto proved the naysayers wrong on his journey with his master, missing two stops along the way. He kept going despite the odds and was part of the team that brought the serum home. He let the final sprint, undeterred, even when the winds lifted the sled into the air. Balto became a symbol of tenacity, courage, resilience and strength worldwide. He became the main character in a film bearing his name, inspiring a whole new generation. 

What Balto accomplished cannot go unrecognized — he traveled in the dead of night, staying on course against all the odds. Balto and the Iditarod go hand in hand to this day. He lived a long and happy life, finally passing away in 1933 at the impressive age of 14. His name and what he stands for have stood the test of time, and thousands of children still visit his statue in Central Park today. 

The Legend Today

There has been some controversy over the Balto vs. Togo debate. Balto took the majority of the fame and accolades. Those in that fateful January of 1925 knew that Togo was the real hero in many ways — he covered the longest and most perilous portion of the route and saved his master and team from certain death. He was already 12 years old when he accomplished this extraordinary feat. Without him, the Diphtheria epidemic may have wiped out Nome altogether. Togo got his movie in 2019 as more and more people began to recognize his indomitable heroism. His statue stands at Poland Springs, Maine. 

Balto and Togo remain true American heroes, revered to this day for their courage and the hope they gave to many. They are an eternal part of Alaska’s rich and colorful history. The yearly Iditarod sled race is just one of many ways they’re remembered, and images of them beating the odds through the pure white snow, sleek and treacherous ice, fighting against the unforgiving beauty of Alaska will stay in the imaginations of generations to come.

Get a Glimpse of True Alaska With Windstar Cruises

Get a Glimpse of True Alaska With Windstar Cruises

Balto, Togo and their story are just a small part of a deep and complex Alaskan history. You can explore Alaska’s wild beauty and put your finger on the pulse of its unbelievable history with Windstar Cruises. Our small yacht size allows for a unique and immersive travel experience with like-minded couples or singles. Explore Alaskan history as you’ve never seen it before, and create lifelong bonds in our less crowded and more intimate setting. 

Plan your Alaskan vacation with Windstar Cruises and stand where the legends of another time once stood. Request a call with us today so we can help you explore the once-in-a-lifetime beauty and staggering history Alaska has to offer. 

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