A Race To Stop Death: The Dogsled Relay That Inspired The Iditarod

By | July 13, 2019

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A musher racing the Iditarod. (Photo by Jean-Erick PASQUIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

When Dr. Curtis Welch informed the Mayor of Nome, Alaska that the town of 1,429 souls faced death through a diphtheria outbreak, there was seemingly nothing that could be done. It was late January 1925. Only 75,000 units of serum were available, not enough for the entire town. What is more, the serum was five years old and probably ineffective. They needed a new stock of antitoxin, but in the deep winter, Nome was isolated. The port was completely iced up. The nearest train depot was 674 miles to the east in Nenana through an unforgiving wilderness of extreme subzero temperatures and storms.  

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Nome, Alaska in 1916. Source: (Wikipedia)

Plane or Dog?

There were two possible solutions -- first to fly in serum through the relatively new invention of the airplane. This, however, was dismissed especially by experts in aviation. The open-cockpit planes that could feasibly make the journey would have to do so in such freezing temperatures that the pilots would likely die en route, or the planes would break down.

The second solution was to relay serum to Nome using dog sled mushers over the Iditarod mail trail from Seward to Nome. Dr. Welch estimated that they would have six days to get the serum to Nome before winter conditions would make it unusable. The normal time on the mail route from Nenana to Nome was 30 days. Even if the serum could last for 30 days, the entire town could be dead by then.

300,000 units of the serum were located in Anchorage. These were duly packed in glass vials, then wrapped in quilts, and then finally inserted into a 20-pound metal cylinder. It was then shipped by train to Nenana.

At the same time, the Northern Commercial Company, which controlled the mail route, called for volunteers. They quickly assembled a team of mushers and made clear to them that they might run their dogs and themselves to death. Children’s lives were at stake.