Remembering Siberian husky Balto (above) who died on March 14, 1933 — and also remembering Togo.
A courageous sled dog named Balto led a team of huskies on the final leg of a 670-mile mercy mission across brutal Alaskan terrain in 1925 to deliver life-saving medicine to the stricken residents of Nome.
In the dreadful winter of 1924-25, a diphtheria epidemic had already killed 15,000 people in the U.S.
It took 20 mushers and 150 sled dogs to get the needed medicine to the town of Nome and surrounding communities.
Balto was on the sled team of Norwegian musher Gunnar Kassen, and a dog named Togo was on a team mushed by another Norwegian, Leonhard Seppala.
All of the dogs in the famous 1925 serum run to Nome showed incredible courage and stamina, but it was Balto who ended up getting most of the credit because his team led the dogs over the final stretch.
TOP DOG CONTROVERSY
Seppala, who owned both Balto and Togo, believed Togo was the real hero of the serum run.
“I never had a better dog than Togo,” Seppala said. “His stamina, loyalty, and intelligence could not be improved upon. Togo was the best dog that ever traveled the Alaska trail.”
Time magazine writer Katy Steinmetz also thought that Togo was the best sled dog of all time and the real hero of the serum run.
“The dog that gets credit for eventually saving the town is Balto, but he just happened to run the last 55 miles,” she wrote. “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 and included a traverse across perilous Norton Sound, where he saved his team and driver in a courageous swim through ice floes.”
Either way, all the dogs were heroes in Nome and throughout Alaska.
EPIDEMIC RAGED IN NOME
There was only one doctor in Nome in those early 1920s, Curtis Welch, and four nurses at the Maynard Columbus Hospital.
Several months before the mercy run, all the diphtheria antitoxin in Dr. Welch’s hospital had expired. More supplies would normally have been transported by ship, but early ice had closed the port for the winter and more antibiotics could not be shipped until spring.
Dr. Welch sent out an urgent radio message for help:
AN EPIDEMIC OF DIPHTHERIA IS INEVITABLE HERE. I AM IN URGENT NEED OF ONE MILLION UNITS OF DIPHTHERIA ANTITOXIN.
And so began the five-day relay by dog sled across 674 miles (1,085 km) of rough ice, through treacherous waters and Arctic blizzards.
HERO DOGS TOUR U.S.
Following the success of the serum run, Seppala toured the U.S. with Togo, drawing huge crowds from Seattle to New England. They were celebrated at New York City’s Madison Square Garden, and Togo received a gold medal from Norwegian explorer and South Pole hero Roald Amundsen.
Togo went on to sire many litters, but on December 5, 1929 at the age of 16, he was euthanized, with Seppala by his side. After his death, Togo was preserved and mounted, and today is on display in a glass case at the Iditarod museum in Wasilla, Alaska.
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. Balto is also commemorated in a statue in New York City’s Central Park.
*Historical note: The practice of using dogs to pull sleds dates back to at least 2000 BC and was originated by native cultures in Siberia and North America.