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

CULTURE | July 26, 2019

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.  

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.

A an Alaskan musher, circa 1900. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

“Let’s Get Started”

The serum arrived in Nenana on January 27 at 11 p.m and given to Wild Bill Shannon, a hulking, hairy man who was a trapper or miner. After receiving instructions on how to care for the serum cylinder he took off into the wilderness bound in hides and skins to keep warm. He left despite advice that he should wait until it was warmer at dawn. “If people are dying, let’s get started,” Shannon said.

The plan was to follow the Iditarod mail trail, however, at a certain point they would break off the trail and shortcut over open terrain.  

A musher and his team. Year unknown. Source: (Wikipedia Commons)

Frozen Death

The fierce winds drove the temperature to minus 62 as Wild Bill headed deep into the wilderness. Feeble sunlight lit the way for him only four hours at a time. Aside from the cold, frozen lakes and streams could easily give way under the sled thus inflicting the musher a slow, icy death.

With blood dripping from the mouths of his dogs, Wild Bill reached Tolovana at 5:30 a.m. Two of his dogs would die soon thereafter. Wild Bill’s face was seared black with frostbite.

The serum was brought inside a cabin where it was warmed while the next musher in the relay, Edgar Kallands prepared his sled team. He then streaked away over the ice, traveling 31 miles to Manley Hot Springs. It certainly wasn’t hot, the next driver Dan Green had to pour boiling water on Kallands's hands to free him from the sled.

Word had come that children were dying in Nome. There was no time to lose.  

Route of the mushers. Source: (Wikipedia)

The Great Relay

The serum relayed its way along the trail. Dan Green drove 28 miles to Fish Lake. Johnny Folger then mushed 28 miles to Tanana. Sam Joseph 34 miles to Kallands. Titus Nicolai 24 miles to Nine Mile Cabin. Dave Corning 30 miles to Kokrines. Harry Pitka 30 miles to Ruby. Bill McCarty in a blizzard sledded 28 miles to Whiskey Creek. To Galena, Edgar Nollner drove 24 miles followed by his brother George another 18 to Bishop Mountain.

An ice fog had settled on the Yukon that obscured conditions for the next musher, Charlie Evans. He could only see the heads of his dogs bobbing in front of him. He had to detour miles to find a safe crossing of the river. After nearly running his dogs to death to save time, he reached Nulato, some thirty miles from Bishop Mountain. It was minus 64. Two dogs dropped dead in the harness.

The next musher was Tommy Patsy, who followed the Yukon another 36 miles to Kaltag. From Kaltag another obscure musher called “Jackscrew” broke off the trail to travel 40 miles overland to the Old Woman shelter. After a quick handoff to Victor Anagick, the serum traveled another 34 miles along the coast to Unalakleet.  

Leonhard Seppala and Togo. Source: (Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images)

The Champion Musher

A blizzard was coming in when Myles Gonangnan headed out of Unalakleet for Shaktoolik, some forty miles distant. It was at Shaktoolik, that the blizzard hit on full and the serum was passed to the champion musher, 48-year old Leonhard Seppala. Short and wiry, Seppala had won the All-Alaska sweepstakes race three times. He had rushed to Unalakleet with a 20 dog team led by his best dog, a 12-year-old husky named Togo and taken the serum from the musher who was supposed to be the next leg of the relay.

To save time, Seppala shortcutted across the frozen Norton Sound. This would save hours of time. It was highly dangerous since a crack would lead to sure death. But by his reckoning, he did not have the luxury of time and the children of Nome would die anyway if he took the longer and safer route. So over the frozen ice, he went with gale-force winds buffeting him with a windchill of minus 85. Togo remained in the lead. Under whiteout conditions and cracking ice all about him, he reached the shore at 8:00 pm on Saturday, January 31, 1925. He took shelter in an igloo with an Eskimo family. He and his dogs had crossed 86 miles of ice.

Gunnar Kaasen and Balto. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Balto’s Turn

Seppala shot away to Dexter’s Roadhouse and passed the serum to Charlie Olson. Olson then carried it 25 miles to Bluff, where the Norwegian-born musher, Gunnar Kaasen took it and headed out with his team, headed by the husky Balto.

Kaasen had a hard time of it. The blizzard continued and he was being blinded by windburn. A gust of wind pushed his sled team off into a drift where he almost lost the serum. He made it to Port Safety where he was supposed to hand it off to the next musher. But the roadhouse was dark so Kaasen pushed on to Nome despite already having driven 53 miles through the blizzard.

Photo showing the arrival of Gunnar Kaasen in Nome, Alaska to deliver the serum. Source: (gettyimages.com)

And he made it. At 5:30 a.m. on Monday, February 2, Kaasen arrived at Nome’s hospital. He handed the serum to Dr. Welch, who thawed it and began to administer it to his patients. By this point, there were 64 cases of diphtheria and six children dead.

Statue of Balto in New York's Central Park. Source: (gettyimages.com)

Endurance, Fidelity, Intelligence

The mushers of the serum run were feted nationally especially Kaasen, Seppala and their dogs Togo and Balto. Balto arguably became the most famous canine of his day. A statue of Balto was erected in New York City’s Central Park with the inscription “Endurance, Fidelity, Intelligence.”

In part to commemorate the serum run, in 1973 the famous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race was instituted. The race, which has a distance of over 900 miles over the course of up to two weeks, is an extreme sport that has captured the world’s imagination. This is longer than the 674 miles driven by the serum mushers, and individuals drive the whole route of the modern Iditarod, but the race admittedly is less intense than the need to save a town from certain death.

Tags: alaska | the Iditarod

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