Sled dogs of mercy: The incredible true-life adventure of the 1925 Nome serum race.

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90 years ago today, on February 2, 1925, a bedraggled man in ice-encrusted furs drove a dogsled pulled by exhausted Siberian Huskies onto Front Street in Nome, Alaska. This man, Norwegian-born sled driver Gunnar Kaasen, was there to deliver a crucial package: a metal cylinder weighing about 20 pounds surrounding a bundle of fragile glass vials that contained 300,000 doses of diphtheria serum. This small package not only made the difference between life and death for the beleaguered residents of Nome, but the effort to deliver it is one of the most epic real-life adventure stories of the 20th century.

The story of the Nome serum run began the previous autumn. Nome at that time was icebound much of the year, and although its population had declined since the days of the Klondike gold rush in the late 1890s, about 1400 people still lived there. The one doctor in town was Curtis Welch. In August 1924 he noticed he was running low on diphtheria serum and placed an order for more in Juneau. It hadn’t arrived by the time the last ship left before the ice froze up the port. This wasn’t necessarily disastrous, but in December and January numerous kids in Nome began to come down with what Welch thought at first was severe tonsillitis. When some of the kids died he realized that it was diphtheria. Dr. Welch estimated he needed 1,000,000 doses of antitoxin serum to prevent a full-scale epidemic that could literally kill the entire town. Hospitals in the continental U.S. had it, but the question was: how to get it to Nome, a tiny town now in deep winter almost totally cut off from the rest of the world until spring?

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Leonhard Seppala, another Norwegian-born sled driver (or “musher”), later vied with Gunnar Kaasen (shown at the top of this article) for publicity generated by their heroic feats.

The Nome city fathers and federal and state health officials scrambled to find a solution to the problem. Airplanes were obviously the fastest way, but air transport in Arctic conditions was a very dicey prospect in 1925; between storms, bad flying conditions and unreliable machines, no one could be sure a plane could make it, and losing the serum in a crash would be much worse than having it arrive too late. Thus, territorial governor Scott Bone decided to transport 300,000 doses that had been found in Anchorage overland by dogsled, which was the route mail used to get to Nome in the winter. Gunnar Kaasen and Leonhard Seppala, both Norwegian transplants to the region, were judged the best dogsled drivers in the territory. The serum would be delivered to sled drivers in Nulato, and then the Norwegians would be part of a relay team that would traverse over 300 miles of treacherous icy terrain in subzero weather to bring the medicine to Nome.

The relay began on January 27 when veteran sled driver “Wild Bill” Shannon picked up the serum in Nenana–it arrived by train from Fairbanks–and immediately set out for the interior in the midst of a raging storm and temperatures 50 degrees below zero (F). His dog, Blackie, was the lead on his team. Shannon’s team also included several native Alaskans. They arrived at Minto at 11AM the next day, frostbitten and in bad shape; three of Shannon’s dogs dropped dead not long afterward. From Minto the package went by another sled team to Manley Hot Springs. By now Dr. Welch was reporting the situation in Nome was desperate: more children had come down with diphtheria and several had already died. The town couldn’t wait much longer for the medicine. Governor Bone ordered the relay to speed up by the addition of more drivers to Seppala’s team which would make the crucial final stretch to Nome. With more sled drivers, they could take shifts, meaning the expedition would not have to stop to rest.

On January 31, in the midst of a major winter storm brewing across the region, Seppala set out from Nome to meet the relay team near Shaktoolik. He met up with the relay carrying the package, now on a sled driven by Henry Ivanoff. The teams almost missed each other in the blowing snow. Seppala now had the serum, and despite worsening conditions he took off through blinding conditions back toward Nome. By now 28 people in Nome were sick. The package contained barely enough doses to treat 30. The lives of the rest of the people of Nome hung in the balance.

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These adorable Siberian Husky puppies are likely descendants of some of the sled dogs that took part in the serum race. Most huskies in the U.S. are.

Seppala’s team, led by his heroic dog Togo (who was to become very famous), passed the package to Charlie Olsen in Golovin, who then undertook an arduous journey to the next relay point. Frostbitten and having been blown off the trail, Olson arrived late on February 1 in terrible shape. The storm was not abating and Kaasen made the decision to go anyway. At 10PM he took off, with his dog Balto in the lead. The snow was so thick that at times he couldn’t even see the dogs roped to the sled. Conditions got slightly better overnight. At 5:30 AM on February 2, Kaasen’s team skidded onto Front Street with the precious cylinder. Not a single one of the fragile glass vials of serum was broken during the arduous journey.

The delivery of the medicine was a Godsend for the people of Nome. Welch went to work and managed to save most of the patients who’d been infected. While 7 (according to most estimates) still died–possibly many more in the Eskimo communities around Nome–clearly a major epidemic had been avoided. A second shipment of serum arrived February 15, thus ensuring that the disease wouldn’t get out of control. Seppala, Kaasen and especially their dogs were suddenly national heroes. Letters and telegrams, including some from President Calvin Coolidge, poured in. Both sled drivers were celebrities, as were their dogs, Balto and Togo. As they went on publicity tours, a rivalry developed between Kaasen and Seppala; Kaasen was the more famous, but Seppala covered more territory in harsher conditions.

The legacy of the Nome serum race has lasted a long time, and in more ways than one. Aficionados of dogsledding (known as “mushing”) know that the famous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was established in part to commemorate the event–part of the mercy race used the Iditarod trail, which the sporting event has now made famous. But more than that, the event introduced Siberian huskies to American dog owners. Seppala sold the survivors of his heroic sled dog team to a kennel in Maine. Most Siberian huskies alive in the United States today are descended from these dogs. Thus, the history of one of the most thrilling real-life adventures in Alaskan history lives on, literally, in flesh and blood.

The photo of Leonhard Seppala may be under copyright, but its copyright owner is evidently not clear. If it is copyrighted, fair use is claimed under U.S. copyright law.
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2 Comments

  1. Fascinating. I had heard of this before, but not about the near impassible and impossible conditions.

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