If you visit Central Park in New York City you may come across a bronze statue of a dog labeled “Balto”. But you may not know the story of this heroic dog and what he did to save the lives of children. The statue was erected in 1925, the year in which Balto, a sled dog in Alaska, saved the children in the town of Nome from a serious diphtheria outbreak.
That year, the town was stricken with the disease, which is a bacterial infection that was quite serious at the time and especially dangerous to children as it would cause the throat and airways to swell, leading to croup and respiratory problems that could be life threatening.
In January of 1925, the town of Nome ran out of the antitoxin used to treat infected patients. As the infection spread and more children died, the town’s doctor sent out an urgent plea to have the serum delivered. Without it, adults and children would die; the expected mortality rate was close to 100 percent!
Nome lies approximately 2 degrees south of the Arctic Circle, and in winter the port on the southern shore was icebound and inaccessible by steamship. The only link to the rest of the world during the winter was the Iditarod Trail, which ran from the port of Seward in the south, across several mountain ranges and the vast Alaska Interior before reaching Nome.
Authorities proposed a dogsled relay, in order to bring the much-needed antitoxin to Nome. One team would start at Nenana and the other at Nome, and they would meet at Nulato. The journey would be a 674-mile round trip from Nome to Nulato and back. A trip from Nulato to Nome normally took 30 days but the doctor calculated that the serum would only last 6 days under the brutal conditions of the trail!
So, an elite team of 20 mushers and 150 sled dog were assembled for the dog sled relay to try and beat the clock and save lives.
The first musher in the relay was “Wild Bill” Shannon. He unfortunately had inexperienced dogs and lost several on the way. He also got frostbite while battling through the cold which dipped to −62 °F (−52 °C).
The Norwegian Leonhard Seppala was also chosen for the dangerous round trip because he had made the run in a record-breaking four days 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.
They set out from Nome right into a winter storm. The team battled terrible windchill and Togo ran 350 miles for his part of the run; the dog gave so much of himself that he could never run again.
Seppala handed off the serum to Charlie Olsen. Windchill and raging storms blew Olsen off the trail. He suffered severe frostbite in his hands while putting blankets on his dogs. When he arrived at the next hand-off he was in poor shape.
Gunnar Kaasen and his dog Balto were to take the serum on the home stretch. They led the team through visibility so poor that Kaasen could not always see the dogs harnessed closest to the sled. Kaasen traveled through the night, through drifts, and river overflow over the 600-foot Topkok Mountain. At one point, Balto saved the whole team from plunging into a river. He somehow sensed the dangerous edge at the last minute, even in the pitch black. Kaasen also lost the cylinder containing the serum after it fell of the sled into the snow. He got frostbite digging the cylinder out of the snow.
When Kaasen and Balto pulled into Nome, not a single ampule was broken. A remarkable achievement considering the journey the vials made!
Together, the teams covered the 674 miles (1,085 km) in 127.5 hours, which was considered a world record. Even more incredibly, it was done in extreme subzero temperatures in near-blizzard conditions and hurricane-force winds.
Balto, Togo and the other dogs and mushers saved Nome and the surrounding communities from the epidemic.
Despite the praise Balto received, many today consider Togo to be equally, if not more heroic than Balto, as he and Seppala covered the longest and most hazardous leg. They also did double the distance covered by any other team.
However, it is Balto, who went on to become the symbol of the “Great Race of Mercy” and was featured in various news clips of the time.
Balto was on hand in in Central Park for the unveiling of his statue in December 1925, which is appropriately located near the Children’s Zoo.
The “Great Race of Mercy” is still commemorated annually with the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska.