In 1925, a life-or-death race to deliver desperately needed anti-toxin from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska turned a sled dog named Balto into a hero.
Balto was a Siberian husky born in 1923 in Nome, Alaska. He spent the early part of his life as part of a dog team that transported supplies to miners in the surrounding area. Balto was actually considered to be a “scrub dog,” meaning an inferior or slow-working dog.
On January 21, 1925, several Inuit children in Nome, Alaska were diagnosed with diphtheria, a disease that was still common, widespread, and greatly feared in the 1920’s. Caused by bacteria that invades the nose, mouth, and throat, the disease usually develops in the throat and can make it hard to swallow and even cause a patient to suffocate. If diphtheria is not properly treated in time, the bacteria then produces a powerful poison that spreads throughout the body and causes serious complications such as heart failure or paralysis.
Without anti-toxin to combat it, the highly contagious disease would quickly spread to all of the children in Nome. After telegraphs asking for help were sent to Fairbanks, Anchorage, Seward, and Juneau, the only serum in Alaska was found to be at a hospital in Anchorage, nearly 1000 miles away. A train would be able to transport the medicine part of the distance to the town of Nenana, but after that, transportation methods were almost non-existent. Pack ice prevented delivery to Nome by ship, while frequent blizzard conditions prevented transport by air (in fact, two aircraft that might have been able to make the trip and deliver the medicine had been dismantled and stored for the winter in Fairbanks). A way needed to be found — and quickly — to traverse the remaining 674 miles between Nenana and Nome. It was finally decided that the fastest and most reliable way to transport the anti-toxin over the remaining distance was by using a relay of dog sled teams. It was estimated that the trip could take up to 13 days to complete.
In Anchorage, the serum was packed in a cylinder, wrapped in an insulating quilt, and then tied up in canvas for further protection. The package left Anchorage by train on Monday, January 26 and arrived the next night in Nenana, where it was turned over to the first musher and his dog team.
More than 20 mushers and their dog sled teams eventually took part in a Pony Express-type relay, battling against temperatures that rarely rose above -40 degrees Fahrenheit and winds that were sometimes strong enough to knock over both the dogs and the sleds. On February 1, 1925, the package was handed off for the last time to a musher named Gunnar Kassen in the village of Bluff. Kassen’s sled dog team, led by Balto, set off to cover the final leg to Nome.
Soon after the team left Nenana, a blinding blizzard began, dropping temperatures to -50 degrees and generating wind gusts in excess of 50 mph. Kassen found himself unable to navigate, and almost gave up all hope of making it to Nome in time. But Balto knew the trail well, and, following his instincts, led the team through the cold and snow.
Over the next 20 hours, Balto slowly led his sled dog team over the final 53 miles. On February 2 at 5.30 AM, the team finally arrived in Nome. The dogs were too tired to even bark, but the serum had successfully been delivered — only seven days after leaving Anchorage, and just 127 1/2 hours after leaving Nenana.
The press had been following the story for days, and Balto and the team instantly became famous. Balto appeared on the front cover of newspapers all over the world, and shortly afterward appeared in a short Hollywood movie “Balto and the Race to Nome.” Kassen took Balto and the team on a nationwide tour, which concluded with the unveiling of a life size statue of Balto in New York City’s Central Park on December 17, 1925. Sculpted by F.G. Roth, the bronze sculpture is New York’s only statue commemorating a dog. The statue includes a plaque with an inscription that reads:
“Dedicated to the indomitable spirit of the sled dogs that relayed anti toxin 600 miles over treacherous waters, through arctic blizzards, from Nenana to the relief of stricken Nome in the winter of 1925 – Endurance, Fidelity, Intelligence”.
Balto’s first taste of fame was short-lived. He and the team were soon sold to a “Vaudeville museum,” and Balto himself was used in different dime shows and stage acts. In 1927, Cleveland resident George Kimble discovered Balto and the team living in horrible conditions, and quickly started an appeal to raise the funds to buy them. Suddenly the nation became interested again, and Kimble raised the money he needed in only 10 days. The team was quickly shipped to Cleveland zoo, where they received a hero’s welcome.
Balto was a star attraction at the Cleveland Zoo for six years until he died in 1933 at the age of 10. After his death, Balto’s body was mounted and put on display at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, where it remains to this day.
Balto’s legend still lives on today. The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race has been run from Anchorage to Nome every year since 1973, and commemorates the role of dog teams in the settlement of Alaska and the heroic serum relay of 1925 that saved numerous lives. In 1995, Universal Studios released the popular animated family feature “Balto,” featuring the voices of Kevin Bacon and Bob Hoskins.
Today, some Alaskan schoolchildren are campaigning to bring Balto back to his home state, proposing that his body moved to the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race museum in Wasilla. But Cleveland officials aren’t ready to give Balto back, noting he spent more than half his life in their city. There are plans in the works, however, for Balto to return to Alaska at least temporarily, as part of an exhibit at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art.