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Dog vs. Airplane

The race to save Nome from a diphtheria outbreak

By Steve Moyer | HUMANITIES, November/December 2013 | Volume 34, Number 6

One had a distinguished face that drew you into his eyes, which never stopped watching and watching over others. Always ready to leap into action, he was a natural leader. The other had a likable face but was more of a follower—he had never proven to be exceptional. Neither read the newspapers and so they were unaware of the many currents that flowed together to give them their shot at fame.

The one was named Togo, the other, Balto. They were Siberian Huskies who would play pivotal roles in the sled-dog relay that brought serum to Nome, Alaska, during the 1925 diphtheria epidemic.

In 1899, gold was discovered in Nome, then a small coastal town. The population soared to twenty thousand as prospectors streamed in. “Rush For Cape Nome Gold Fields Is On,” announced the San Francisco Call.

Nome became a magical place in the American imagination, its reputation stoked by newspaper accounts of easy fortune. John Hummel, among the first to discover the yellow lucre, claimed he simply picked it up along the beach. In 1900, Nome poured millions of dollars into the American economy. By then, it had saloons, a dozen hardware stores, a couple of watchmakers, a masseuse, and bordellos.

It was like the Wild West. But instead of horses, they had dogs. Nome was the “Dog Capital of the World.” Days were short, and as the sun went down a nightly ritual of howling began, a discord called the Malamute Chorus, arising from the edge of town where the mushers kept their kennels.

Eskimos, members of the Athabaskan tribes, and interracial descendants made up a third of the population. The Eskimos lived separately from the white population, in shacks made from driftwood and lumber scraps. During the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, half the Eskimos and Natives in Nome died. And during the diphtheria epidemic, the same population would again prove terribly vulnerable.

“Sourdoughs” were miners who had prospected in the last gold rush. They mixed uneasily with newcomers, the “cheechakos,” who carried with them dreams of easy riches. Few cheechakos ever found the “big pay streak”—as a good claim was called. Unprepared for the harsh winter, many died or resorted to stealing from Eskimos to survive. When the first ship arrived in spring, great numbers scrambled aboard, and the population of Nome contracted sharply.

Aviation was slow to catch on in Alaska—especially in the Interior, where winter temperatures routinely dropped to minus thirty or forty degrees Fahrenheit. The white winter sky looked so much like the snow and ice on the ground that pilots compared the experience to flying around the inside of a milk bottle. The most efficient and reliable form of transport was still the dogsled. But powerful interests in Fairbanks and Nome lobbied for contracts to deliver mail by plane—or “airship.”

The most relentless was newspaperman W. F. Thompson—nicknamed “Wrong Font” by detractors who capitalized on the cruel coincidence between his initials and printers’ notation for an incorrect type face. He was both editor of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner and a founder of the Fairbanks Airplane Corporation. Thompson was a tireless booster who thought he would be doing Alaska a big favor by bringing aviation up north.

Nome, after all, was remote. Lying along the coast of the Bering Sea, it is a mere hundred thirty-eight miles from eastern Siberia. For nine months a year, it was practically unreachable. The only link to the outside world was distant Seward, an ice-free port in southern Alaska and the starting point for a railroad that wended its way north through Anchorage and on to the Athabaskan village of Nenana, not far to the west of Fairbanks. From there dog teams carried mail and supplies to Nome.

Mushers followed trails established over centuries by the Athabaskan Indians to cross the Interior basin. They passed over mountains and rode across the shorefast ice along the coast of the Bering Sea. Then they struck across the ice of Norton Bay or went around to finally reach Nome, almost seven hundred miles from Nenana. With stopovers to rest dogs or change teams and drivers, the mail took between twenty-five and thirty days.

The dogs were kept busy all year long. During the annual thaw from June till October, freight dogs transported supplies inland from the coast. In the long winter months, sled-dog racing provided entertainment to the hunkered-down population. The premier event was the All Alaska Sweepstakes, which ran annually in April from 1908 to 1917, and which was won in its final three years by a short, wiry Norwegian immigrant of uncommon strength, endurance, and competitive spirit—the legendary Leonhard Seppala. Twelve-year-old Togo was Seppala’s lead dog and a local celebrity.

By January 25, 1925, soon after the first cases of diphtheria were diagnosed, Dr. Curtis Welch—Nome’s sole physician—and the town’s temporary Board of Health established a quarantine. There had already been several deaths due to “the strangling angel of children,” and Welch had many confirmed cases on his hands. Earlier cases of severe sore throats among Eskimo children had not been examined closely before it was too late. In some instances, due to superstitions and beliefs of the Eskimos, Welch was prevented from doing a thorough examination. If more cases had been brought to Welch’s attention sooner, it would have been hard for him to miss the telltale signs of diphtheria, which primarily affects children: high temperature and a severe sore throat followed by the buildup of a thick membrane lining the throat, which suppurated, causing a stench.

The only known remedy was a serum derived through horse’s blood. A new shipment that Welch had ordered had never arrived, and the supply in his office was long past its expiration date. He began administering the expired serum, first to infected Eskimo children, then to white children, and hoped for the best.

How fresh serum could be delivered quickly to Nome in the middle of winter was hotly debated. “Fairbanks is standing by,” the front page of W. F. Thompson’s Daily News-Miner trumpeted, “ready with airships and men, to cut Nome’s waiting time in half if Washington wires the orders ‘go.’” But it had never been done before, so the delivery of the serum, it was decided, would be by sled-dog team.

A doctor in Anchorage who had heard about the outbreak in Nome, John Bradley Beeson, discovered a supply of 300,000 units of the antitoxin in the railroad hospital there. Welch had estimated that Nome needed a million units of the serum, but what Beeson had would save many lives. Beeson packaged the vials of serum with plenty of insulation and padding and penned instructions to warm the crate for fifteen minutes, when possible, by a fire. Under no circumstances should the serum be allowed to freeze.

Beeson carried the twenty-pound crate to the railway station. From there it traveled due north to Nenana, where the first musher, William “Wild Bill” Shannon, was impatiently waiting.

Temperatures were plunging, but Shannon was eager to get started. He was advised by the postal inspector in Nenana to wait it out. “Hell, Weltz,” Shannon shot back, “if people are dying . . . let’s get started.”

That night the temperatures fell to fifty-four degrees below zero. Mushers generally observe “the rule of the 40s,” meaning it’s not wise to work dogs in temperatures warmer than forty degrees Fahrenheit or colder than forty below. Wild Bill chose not to obey the rule. The Interior gets colder than the Arctic itself, and by the end of his leg, Shannon was down from nine dogs to six.

High winds caused whiteout conditions along the trail, which was in poor condition where horses had preceded the sleds during the winter. Shannon was due at the village of Tolovana around daybreak the morning of January 28, but at sunrise, the next musher, Edgar Kallands, saw no sign of him. Finally, around eleven o’clock, amid the pistol-shot sounds of trees cracking from the pressure of the cold, Kallands heard Wild Bill approaching. Shannon’s face was black with frostbite.

Kallands and the mushers who followed Wild Bill’s leg through the Interior were tough, unassuming descendants of Athabaskan Indians. Their route traced the Tanana River and then the Yukon. During the nonstop relay, they followed trails along the riverbanks and atop the ice. They paused only long enough for the driver to take the serum into a roadhouse to be warmed by a fire before being handed off to the next driver.

Kallands’s thirty-one mile leg took him through dense woods and across a bend of the Tanana River. With temperatures exceeding fifty degrees below zero, the trip took five hours, and by the time he arrived at the next relay point, Manley Hot Springs, he was frozen fast to the bar of his sixteen-foot sled.

Among the next mushers were Sam Joseph and Harry Pitka. Joseph was a descendant of one of the fiercest tribes in the Interior, and Pitka, in an earlier epidemic, had lost twelve siblings. In spite of a deep freeze and high winds, the relay was moving along toward Nulato—the halfway mark—with great efficiency.

After Pitka, young dog handler Bill McCarty, from the former mining town of Ruby, was next up. McCarty later remembered that his boss asked him to take a little ride. His remarks, recorded late in life, are characteristic of all the mushers in their simple humility. “It was getting dark,” he said. “I had never been that way down the trail before. I took a flashlight. I had to run to keep warm. I wouldn’t feed the dogs that night. They wouldn’t run so good with a bellyful.”

He then handed off to the first of two brothers, who would take the legs from Whiskey Creek, on the southern bank of the Yukon, to Galena on the northern bank. Along the way, the Northern Lights danced in the sky. Edgar passed the serum to his brother, George, who was happy to be making the trip, he said, because he had a girlfriend at the next relay point, a fish camp on the Yukon, Bishop Mountain.

George Nollander was still humming an Athabaskan love song as he handed off to twenty-two-year-old Charlie Evans. Evans was not the only musher to claim that his lead dog was part wolf. As it happens, wolves are no match for the strength, endurance, and speed of Huskies, but mushers sometimes stretched the truth this way, hoping for a better price among prospective buyers.

Physical and mental toughness were prized because Alaska was full of harsh realities. Take “overflow,” which occurred where one river entered another, eroding the ice below the surface. It’s as dangerous as a minefield. During his thirty-mile leg on January 30, Evans avoided the overflow where the Koyukok River entered the Yukon by winding along the banks, but his dogs were having a tough time, and two collapsed. After putting the ailing Huskies aboard the sled as passengers, Evans himself picked up the lead harness and continued on, guiding and pulling along with the remaining dogs in the gang line.

The handoff on January 30 between an Athabaskan musher named Jackscrew to an Eskimo musher, Victor Anagick, was fraught with old animosities. For centuries the two groups had been in open conflict, and the image of descendants of the two formerly hostile camps sitting by the fireside warming the serum created yet more uncertainty for the relay. The two, however, were united in common cause and performed their appointed tasks to perfection.

The gale-force winds at the top of a ridge could flip a sled. The temperatures of forty degrees below zero were hard on the dogs, who could become frost-bitten in the groin, the only part of their bodies without a double coat. Gasping for breath in such frigid air could cause what the mushers called “lung scorch.”

Crossing ice often proved to be the most hazardous danger. Varying conditions could cause, in addition to overflow, glare ice, ice fog, or ice drums, any of which could be fatal to the dogs or the driver. All of the drivers faced these dangers, and as the relay approached the Bering Sea and Norton Sound—where, on January 31, Seppala and his team, led by Togo, began the longest leg—conditions were at their worst.

As the serum headed west, Seppala and Togo drove east to the relay point in Nulato. From there, they would take the serum back to Nome, a trip that amounted to approximately half of the entire run. Seppala and Togo had set many long-distance racing records in Nome and throughout the Interior, so they were the logical choice for the final, marathon leg into Nome.

But Territorial Governor Scott Bone had decided to speed up the trip, so unbeknownst to Seppala, more dogsleds were engaged as part of a plan to shorten his ride out and the ride back. While speeding to Nulato on January 31, Seppala was hailed from the distance by an oncoming musher. Seppala hadn’t expected this. Nor did he expect to get the serum so early, but he turned around and immediately began his leg back.

Mark Summers, Seppala’s boss at the Hammond gold company, did not want Seppala and the serum to cross Norton Sound—known as “the ice factory.” A storm approaching from the Bering Sea was generating ferocious crosswinds. Seppala, nevertheless, told Togo to cross, and the lead dog found a safe passage across the rough, jagged, often fragile ice surface. It was an audacious decision that probably saved lives, but in the process Seppala exhausted his team and himself. Hours after he got off the sound and made the exchange to what turned out to be the penultimate driver, the ice Seppala had just crossed broke up and by morning had moved out to sea.

Next was Charlie Olson, who passed off to Gunnar Kaasen, another Norwegian immigrant working for Hammond. As Seppala’s assistant, he was overshadowed by the racer. Kaasen, much taller than the compactly built Seppala, was just a few years younger, and less successful as a racer. Lacking his own dogs, he selected a team from Seppala’s kennel. Where Seppala was outgoing and crowd-pleasing, Kaasen was a man of few words.

Kaasen was to go about thirty-five miles along the northern coast of Norton Bay to Port Safety and hand off to one of the few mushers to have ever beaten Seppala in a race, Ed Rohn. In the early hours of February 2, however, Kaasen passed, without stopping, the roadhouse where Rohn and his dogs were waiting. Kaasen said it looked like Rohn was asleep inside. The question remains whether Kaasen wanted all for himself the glory of completing the final leg to Nome.

As Governor Bone responded to newspaper requests for “dope on mushers,” the race to Nome, with its amazing tales of valor, continued to grab headlines. The Cleveland Plain Dealer noted, NOME TAKES HOPE AS DOGS DRAW NEAR. The Seattle Post Intelligencer reported, DOGS WINNING RACE WITH DEATH TO NOME.

Kaasen’s leg, however, was one of the least certain to succeed. In blizzard conditions amid gale-force winds and deep snowdrifts, his sled flipped over, and the crate with the serum disappeared. Kaasen took off his mittens, risking frostbite, and frantically searched in the dark on his hands and knees. With tremendous good luck, he was able to find the crate in a snowdrift, and the team continued on its way. Balto, Kaasen’s unlikely choice for lead dog, found the scent of the trail again and led the way through the whiteout.

If Seppala had just the right dog in Togo while crossing the ice of Norton Sound, Kaasen had just the right dog in Balto for this blizzard, with its deep drifts and the many ridges to either climb or go around. As a freight dog, Balto was extremely strong, much more so than a lead dog needed to be. His strength was a determining factor in the safe delivery of the serum.

When Kaasen entered Nome just after dawn on February 2, he drove to Welch’s door, stumbled to the front of the team and, according to one account, collapsed next to Balto, saying only, “Damn fine dog.”

The nonstop relay had taken just a little longer than five days, a feat that had never before been accomplished, and with the impending decision to award U.S. Mail delivery contracts to aviation companies, would be attempted only once again, during a second serum run shortly after the first.

In Daniel Anker’s NEH-funded documentary Icebound, former and present-day Nome residents, historians, journalists, mushers, and descendants of mushers who participated in the relay recount the events of the epidemic. It’s an eclectic choir. Historian Paul Ongtooguk observes what a mixed-bag, even tragic, place Alaska was at the time. Writer Neal Gabler adds that the relay was an event, transformed day by day into a legend. It’s a story—and a beautifully cinematic telling—that can sweep you away.

There was, however, a very unheroic backdrop to the whole affair. Call it politics. Aviation promoters, newspapers, the territorial governor, the mayor of Nome, boosters for the modernization of Alaska, supporters of Alaska home rule, and advocates of releasing Alaska from the thrall of West Coast business and industry were all pulling for an outcome most favorable to their own pet causes.

W. F. Thompson continued applying pressure for permission to deliver a second supply of serum by plane. He had met former World War I aviator Roy Darling and had been impressed with his sense of self-sacrifice. Thompson’s editorializing in the Daily News-Miner was relentless: “The atmosphere is not right for flying, no flier would fly on a bet in such days as these. . . . everything is against ‘the game.’ Yet the emergency undoubtedly exists, and Fairbanks [is] in the eyes of the Flying World, and Nome is our neighbor and pal. What you goin’ to do? The answer is GO.”

With the first relay under way, plans were made to deliver another million units that had been collected from numerous hospitals along the West Coast. The Surgeon General’s office was leaning toward giving Thompson the permission he so fervently desired, but Washington left the decision to Governor Bone, prompting Wrong Font in an editorial on January 30 to explode, “Nome looks to Fairbanks for life, and if there is not too much Red Tape interfering, Fairbanks will be in Nome in less than almost no time.” On February 7, after pleading from Mayor Maynard and Welch, Governor Bone reversed himself: Half of the second batch would go by mushers, half by plane.

By Sunday, February 8, Thompson had a plane ready, and Darling was set to go. In the frigid weather, the prop was given a shove and the plane’s engine roared to life, unexpectedly, on the first try. A propeller blade caught the coat of the man who volunteered to turn the prop and nearly flung him to his death. Roy Darling’s feet, however, were turning numb, a thin coat of ice was forming along the fuselage, and the engine was overheating due to a broken radiator shutter. Repairs had to be made.

In two days, another attempt was made, but Darling and the Anchorage never made it off the ground.

Thompson wrote a gallant concession on February 10 in the News-Miner: “The airship will go when it can, but the dog seems to go whether he can or not. We take our hat off to THE DOG.”

The second batch of serum arrived by sled-dog relay in Nome on February 15, and Welch lifted the quarantine on February 21. All told, there were only five or six official deaths from diphtheria, but there probably were many more deaths among the Eskimos that went unreported. “I imagine that there were at least a hundred cases among the Natives,” Welch told a reporter for a New Haven paper, “and no telling how many deaths in the Eskimo camps outside of the city.”

As the lead dog who had delivered the serum to Nome, Balto became an immediate celebrity. In 1926, he and Kaasen made a film together and toured the Lower 48. After screenings, Kaasen, wrapped in his parka and shod in mukluks, would walk onstage to an enthusiastic welcome. Then Balto would run onstage to thunderous ovations. A statue of him now stands in Central Park, on which many children have played, including cousins Gay Salisbury and Laney Salisbury, who as adults wrote The Cruelest Miles, a best-selling account of the serum run, published in 2003 and from which this article draws many details on the relay, mushers, and Siberian Huskies.

The fame dissipated rapidly, though, and Balto and some of his teammates suffered the indignity of winding up as a tableau vivant in a small, stuffy room in Sam Houston’s dime-a-look museum in Los Angeles, before a businessman from Cleveland came to the rescue. Balto and company were purchased from the museum and spent their retirement ferrying around delighted children at the Cleveland Zoo.

Togo, too, basked in the glory. He and Seppala toured the Lower 48 in 1927 and continued to race for a time in New England. Seppala’s greatest dog spent his final years resting in fireside comfort.

The Iditarod, the annual sled-dog race starting in Anchorage, passing through the town of Iditarod, and finishing in Nome, was begun in the 1970s as a commemoration of the serum relay of 1925, and serves as well as acknowledgment of the heritage of Eskimos and Athabaskans, who taught whites how to survive Alaskan winters.

The celebrity surrounding Togo, Balto, and the mushers, however, had little effect on how Alaskan natives were viewed by whites. A few years after the 1925 diphtheria epidemic, an Eskimo village about fifty miles to the north of Nome—Sinuk—saw an outbreak of infectious disease that wiped out its entire population. This tragic occurrence was never mentioned in any newspaper.

Steve Moyer is associate editor of Humanities.

API Arts and Outreach received a $695,000 grant to support work on Icebound, which premiers December 6 at the Anchorage Film Festival and is showing in other film festivals this winter and will eventually air on television.