Ninety-seven years ago, some of Alaska’s toughest mushers raced against time and the frozen wilderness along the Iditarod trails in a frantic attempt to save more than 1,400 men, women and children of Nome from the ravages of a diphtheria epidemic.
Though once one of the wildest gold rush towns on the Alaska frontier, where Old West legend Wyatt Earp had kept a saloon, by 1925 Nome had dwindled to a community of 974 whites and 455 Eskimos, with Hammon Consolidated Gold Fields the town’s main employer. Giving support to minor gold claims and being the hub of trade for northwest Alaska were all that kept Nome going. In fact, the only contact Nome had with the outside world was a new radio transmitter under the command of the U.S. Army and a system of stopovers, cabins and mail carriers along the Iditarod trails.
Dr. Curtis Welch and his nurses served as the only staff of a small, 25-bed hospital. Most of the time, the medical facility was underutilized. The staff ’s days were filled with a new birth, the passing of an elder citizen and treating the routine illnesses related to winter. The white-haired Welch was following his normal routine of making house calls on January 21, 1925, when he was asked to come down to the Sand Spit on Norton Sound of the Bering Sea. In the early days, the Sand Spit had been an area of makeshift housing along the beach for miners and prospectors, but Eskimo families moving in off the tundra were now making the abandoned structures their homes.
Two small Eskimo boys, the oldest only 3, had become violently ill. Each had a swollen throat and a high fever, but Welch was unable to identify the illness. While the doctor searched through his medical books, he was asked to come to the home of a prominent Nome white family whose boy was showing the same symptoms as the Eskimo children. Welch was stumped, and as he continued to plow through his texts, the two Eskimo boys died. The white boy died shortly thereafter. Others, mostly children, were now showing the same symptoms.
Welch finally decided on a diagnosis. Quietly, he called a meeting with Nome Mayor George Maynard and the director of the Hammon mining operations, M.L. Summers, and told the two men that Nome was facing a deadly diphtheria epidemic. Only 75,000 units of antitoxin were available at the hospital, each merely the size of a teardrop; not only was it not enough for the entire town, but the serum also was more than 5 years old and might not be any good. Worse, Nome’s harbor would be ice-jammed for four more months. Open-cockpit airplanes could not fly in because of subzero temperatures; the pilots would never survive the flight. The nearest train depot was at Nenana 674 miles to the east, with a vast winter wilderness between the two settlements.
In less than a month, all in the town could be dead unless more serum was brought in somehow. Welch and the others already had battled the horrendous influenza epidemic of 1918- 19, which had wiped out whole Eskimo villages. They knew firsthand how an entire town could vanish from disease.
The only answer was the mushers of the mail routes. If relay teams could be set up between shelter cabins every 40 miles, there was a chance the serum might arrive in time. Welch estimated that whatever serum was sent would last only six days on the trail before the brutal winter temperatures would destroy its potency. The record time on the mail route was nine days, but the normal time on the trail from Nenana to Nome was 30 days. It was, however, Nome’s only hope.
Frantic messages were sent out through the U.S. Army Signal Corps, searching for antitoxin. Alaska Territorial Governor Scott Bone contacted H.K. Mulford Co., makers of the serum. More than a million units were located along the West Coast at various locations and sent to Seattle for shipment to Alaska. But time and distance made the efforts futile.
Lady Luck entered the picture when a surgeon for the Alaska Railroad Hospital in Anchorage, Dr. J.B. Beeson, stumbled across 300,000 units forgotten in a supply room. The units were immediately wrapped in glass vials, then blanketed in padded quilts for added protection from the cold before being fitted into a metallic cylinder weighing slightly more than 20 pounds. Within the hour, the serum was on a train plowing through snow on its way to the passes of the Alaska Range, home of Mount McKinley, and over to the rail station at Nenana.
Meanwhile, the Northern Commercial Company, which had the contract for the mail route, was setting up the relay runners. Many of the mushers were Eskimos simply looking for a paycheck to purchase additional supplies for their subsistence lifestyle, and solitary whites and blacks working trap lines or small gold claims alone in the isolated wilderness of west Alaska. The company asked for volunteers, men who could accept the prospect of running themselves and their dogs to death on the trail. It also made it clear to the men that failure was not acceptable; the lives of children were at stake.
While the mushers were being contacted and set in place, Mayor Maynard looked for an outside edge. He knew he was going to need a miracle. And he needed a hero to go with it.
Living in Nome at the time was a man regarded as Alaska’s premier musher, 48-year-old Leonhard Seppala. Though short in stature, the wiry Seppala was a three-time winner of the All-Alaska Sweepstakes race and had won the title of champion in several other mushing events during the previous five years. He was also a wrestling champion and the survivor of several incidents of gunplay.
But would Seppala do it? His own daughter, Seigrid, was now in the hospital with the illness. Maynard approached Seppala: Would he go out and intercept the relay racers somewhere along the Yukon River and bring the serum back if Seppala believed he could make better time? Seppala accepted the challenge. He selected 20 dogs from the mining company, with his favorite—a 12-year-old gray husky named Togo—for the lead position. Seppala hoped to take all 20 dogs, planning to drop a few off at shelter huts along his route so he would have some fresh dogs for the return.
He decided to pass up a black husky being used as a freight dog, doubting that the young animal had enough endurance. That small dog—Balto—would prove Seppala wrong.
Who would start the relay race from Nenana and set the effort in motion was vitally important to Governor Bone. He urgently sent a wire to the “law” in Nenana, asking for help in choosing the right man for the first leg. Always wearing a dress, sometimes with a holster strapped over it, and sometimes wearing a hat, the small and frail Clara Heid was the “law” in Nenana. No one, it seemed, knew where she had come from. Rumor was she had once been a stenographer in Juneau. Another implied she was the “other woman” in a publicized love affair in New York. Regardless, in 1923 she had simply shown up in Nenana unannounced, and the federal judge in Fairbanks had appointed her the U.S. commissioner for the town, feeling he needed someone he considered honest for the position.
To fulfill Governor Bone’s entreaty for the “right” man, Heid knew an ideal candidate, a miner known as Wild Bill Shannon. No one knew much about Wild Bill except that he might have a mine or a trap line up the Stampede Trail along the slopes of the Alaska Range. Heid, usually with pistol in hand, had bailed him out of many a scrap in the local bars when he had single-handedly taken on a roomful of railroad workers. She would send him first.
Bone had instructed Nenana’s local postmaster, Edward Wetzler, to make sure the serum left the town properly prepared and packaged. The temperature was minus 40 when the train with the serum pulled into Nenana at 11 p.m. on January 27. A monster of muscle and hair dressed in skins and hides approached the railroad yard, with tiny Heid in tow. Across the river on a bluff, 46 small white crosses marked the graves of Athabaskan Indians who had died in Nenana six years earlier when there was no serum against the influenza plague. Wild Bill received the package and listened carefully as Wetzler conveyed the special instructions for protecting the serum. Suddenly, Wetzler became animated, insisting Wild Bill should wait until dawn when temperatures would be warmer. In Alaska, however, the nickname Wild Bill is not just handed out to everyone.
“Hell, Wetz,” one observer recalled Wild Bill saying, “if people are dying—let’s get started.”
Under Heid’s watchful eye, he tied the serum to his sled and rushed off into the frozen night. The race to Nome was on!
The plan was for the mushers to use the part of the Iditarod Mail Trail that paralleled the Yukon River and connected Fairbanks with the small mining town of Iditarod—a mangling of the Indian word Haliditarod, meaning distant place. Instead of going all the way southwest to Iditarod, however, the mushers would leave the mail trail just after it turned south and head west to break trail over open ground and connect with the Iditarod Gold Trail, which ran roughly north-south to link Nome and Iditarod and eventually Seward. At that point, the mushers would then turn north toward Nome.
Wild Bill took his team onto the frozen Tanana River. Rounding the bend heading north, he was buffeted by winds that drove the temperatures down to minus 62. Above, the night sky was inflamed with whirling blues and greens of the northern lights. There were reasons the record time for the journey was nine days. Sunlight in winter lasted only four hours, while daily temperatures plummeted to minus 50 on average. An ice-covered lake or river could give way to the weight of sled and man. There was still open water that had to be circled. An accident, no matter how slight, could mean a slow, lonely death—the body not to be found for years. With all this before them, Wild Bill and the other mushers also faced a ticking clock; once the serum had left the warmth of the train, it was good for only 144 hours.
After driving his team 52 miles, Wild Bill approached Tolovana at 5:30 a.m. He saw blood dripping from the mouths of four of his dogs. Two would soon die from frozen lungs. Wild Bill himself was showing signs of the ordeal. The large man’s face was turning a sooty black from severe frostbite. He would be marked for the rest of his life.
Edgar Kallands was waiting his turn as Wild Bill rushed into the shelter cabin to warm the serum. Before leaving, Kallands told Wild Bill that more children had died in Nome. Kallands drove the serum 31 miles to Manley Hot Springs, where Dan Green had to pour boiling water over Kallands’ gloves to free him from his sled.
The death of more children unnerved Mayor Maynard. The Nome hospital was now full, and he felt he could not chance the mushers not getting through to Nome. He sent word to Seppala to leave in the morning and go directly to the Yukon River. Seppala decided to discard his original plan and use all 20 dogs, all the way, fearing that dropping them off and picking them up again later would slow him down. He felt the large team would increase his speed.
The main street of Nome was crowded with frightened parents as Alaska’s greatest musher took off for the Yukon River to the east. Seppala faced a 400-mile round trip alone without rest or fresh dogs. An incoming blizzard was forecast. The lives of his daughter, the other children and the rest of Nome depended on his speed and endurance, and that of his dog team, with Togo in the lead.
Meanwhile, the relay runners coming from Nenana followed the trail mostly in darkness as it paralleled the Yukon River. Dan Green raced the 28 miles from Manley Hot Springs to Fish Lake. Johnny Folger traveled 26 miles to Tanana. Sam Joseph made the 34 miles between Tanana and Kallands. Titus Nicolai went from there to Nine Mile Cabin, a distance of 24 miles. Dave Corning had the next leg of 30 miles to Kokrines. Harry Pitka mushed 30 more miles into the river port of Ruby. Bill McCarty fought through a blizzard for 28 miles before reaching Whiskey Creek. As he came into town, a woman ran out of a crowd, kissed him and cried out, “God bless you!” Crossing another 24 miles into Galena was native Edgar Nollner, whose brother George took it into Bishop Mountain, an additional 18 miles.
The next musher, Charlie Evans, talked years later about how the ice fog was so thick along the Yukon River that he could only make out the heads of his dogs bobbing up and down as they crossed the river ice. Evans then ran into open water and had to travel miles out of his way until he found ice strong enough to cross. To make up for the time lost, he came close to running his dogs to death on the way to Nulato, 30 miles downriver from Bishop Mountain. The temperature at Nulato was minus 64 when Evans arrived. As he stopped in front of the relay cabin, two of his dogs fell to the ground dead from exhaustion while still in harness. Tommy Patsy took over and raced downriver another 36 miles to Kaltag, which was where they would abandon the main Iditarod mail route.
None of the relay mushers knew that Seppala was coming in from the west. A mysterious black volunteer musher, calling himself only Jackscrew, broke trail heading away from the river and into the low range of hills that stand between Kaltag and the Bering coast to link up with the Iditarod Gold Trail. A lantern was lit at the Old Woman shelter hut so that Jackscrew could locate it in the low valleys and come in for shelter and warmth. Having mushed 40 miles, Jackscrew entered the cabin to find Victor Anagick waiting for him. A storm was approaching. Anagick stayed only for a moment, and then pushed on for Unalakleet, 34 miles farther, along the coast.
Meanwhile, despite having dispatched Seppala, Mayor Maynard was still exploring other options. He and the Nome Board of Health, in effect now the local government, sent out its own team of relay runners from Nome, headed east along the mail route. They were ordered to cover the last sections into Nome. One of the men chosen was a young and still somewhat green Gunnar Kaasen, who was 6 feet tall. He went through the mining company’s kennel, picking from the leftover canines. Forced to settle for what he could find, he took Balto for his lead dog and headed east out of Nome.
As Myles Gonangnan headed north out of Unalakleet, the approach of an incoming blizzard could be felt. For 40 miles, Gonangnan forced his team through 6 inches of fresh snow before reaching Shaktoolik. By then the full force of the blizzard was pounding the coastline. Henry Ivanoff was just leaving Shaktoolik when his dogs went wild after picking up the scent of a reindeer that had crossed the trail in front of them. He was trying to untangle their harnesses and settle them down when he saw a lone figure coming out of the blowing snow. It was Seppala!
He had already raced across 43 miles of coastline, stopping for a brief rest at an Eskimo igloo on the west shore of Norton Sound. Taking the serum from Ivanoff, Seppala turned his team around for a 91-mile run back to Golovin—into the teeth of the storm. A few miles away, the trail came to an ice-packed beachhead by Norton Sound. Seppala stopped. Too much time had already been lost, and just ahead the wind had polished the trail into glazed ice. Out in the sound itself, gale-force winds and storm surges were heaving the pack ice up and down in a violent rhythm, thrusting spears of ice into the air. Soon the ice would break up and be swept out to sea, carrying everything on the ice with it.
If he shot across the sound, Seppala could gain hours. However, if he tried and fell through a crevasse, deaths in Nome would soar. But, because most of Nome, including his daughter, would die anyway if he stayed on the trail, Seppala headed out over the ice.
No sooner had Seppala and his dogs started over the frozen sound then the howling winds began to blow them sideways. Beneath the sled, the popping and moaning of ice under pressure was growing louder. Halfway across, blowing snow reduced visibility to zero: a whiteout. Seppala, peering forward, could see his dogs and nothing more. Togo kept racing headlong into an endless white. Seppala heard a boom behind him as his sled crossed the sea ice. Fissures were now snapping open, splitting the ice down to the water below, even as they crossed.
Seppala reached the rocky shore of Norton Sound by 8 p.m. on Saturday and headed for the igloo where he had stayed earlier. The Eskimo family took him in, giving his dogs shelter and food. They had crossed 86 miles of pack ice and had regained hours previously lost. When Seppala woke in the morning, the pack ice had been taken out to sea. There was nothing but open water in Norton Sound.
Rubbing down his dogs, Seppala again raced into the blizzard for Dexter’s roadhouse outside Golovin. There, while Seppala gave the cylinder to Charlie Olson, his dogs collapsed, exhausted, but they all would survive. Nome was now 78 miles away. Olson would cover 25 of them.
Kaasen was inside a cabin at Bluff, warming himself by the stove, when Olson stumbled in. Hurricane-force winds had buried his team in a snowdrift. To save his dogs after digging them out, Olson wrapped them in blankets, exposing his bare hands. Frostbite was now setting in. Kaasen went outside to tend to Olson’s dogs as Olson watched the flesh of his fingers transform into a grayish white. When Kaasen came back in, Olson told him he thought the serum had frozen. Kaasen shook the cylinder. Nothing. With the condition of the serum now in doubt, Kaasen hurried out toward Port Safety 32 miles away.
The full force of the storm had arrived. Reluctantly, Mayor Maynard called Solomon roadhouse, ordering the mushers he had sent out to stand down until the storm passed. Kaasen, however, had already left. Balto led the team through increasingly heavy snow. At one point, Balto suddenly stopped in his tracks along the banks of the Topkok River. When Kaasen went to investigate, he found he was about to force his team into open water. Thanks to Balto, the team had been saved.
Reaching Spruce Creek, Kaasen was nearly blind from windburn. His eyes were beginning to swell shut. Then, near Port Safety, a blast of wind blew the team into a snowbank. Righting the sled and checking his dogs, Kaasen noticed the cylinder was gone! He dug into the snow blindly until his numb fingers made out the metallic shape of the container. He tied it back on the sled and raced for the Port Safety roadhouse.
Kaasen was supposed to give the serum to Ed Rohn for the final leg into Nome, but the roadhouse was dark when he pulled up. Rohn and the others had decided to grab what sleep they could while waiting for the storm to blow itself out. Despite being somewhat blind and having traveled 53 miles from Bluff in the height of the blizzard, Kaasen felt confident he could make it to Nome, so he pushed on. Kaasen arrived at his destination at 5:30 a.m. Monday, February 2, Balto guiding the team into the stricken community. Kaasen pounded on the hospital door and handed the frozen cylinder to Dr. Welch, who carefully thawed it out before administering serum to the first patient.
The relay teams delivered the serum to Nome with only 12 hours to spare. A nurse was tending to Kaasen’s eyes when Dr. Welch walked up to the young musher informing him that the serum worked. Nome had been saved.
Welch and his nurses had battled the epidemic by themselves, treating 64 cases but losing six children. With the new antitoxin, the doctor was able to get all the cases under control, with the town’s quarantine lifted by February 21.
Each of the serum run mushers was paid $18.66, plus $25 a day on the trail by the Alaska territorial government, and each received a medal. Four of the mushers died within two years, either from drowning or exposure along the very same route while delivering the U.S. mail. A whisper of things to come had taken place a year earlier, when in 1924 Ben Eielson flew mail from Fairbanks to McGrath. Years later, Alaska bush pilots with closed-cockpit airplanes won the mail contracts establishing air mail service in 1937, thus dispensing with the U.S. Mail mushers of the Iditarod trails.
Charlie Olson’s fingers were scarred for life, but never amputated. Two years later, the body of Wild Bill Shannon was found apparently mauled by a grizzly, a bowie knife still in his hand. Clara Heid remained the law in Nenana for 23 more years, acquiring a reputation for “liking men” and as a strict upholder of the law. Never married, she stepped down as U.S. commissioner on December 13, 1948, at age 65, and simply moved on, leaving no forwarding address.
Joe Redington Jr., a small business owner and mushing enthusiast, founded the 1,049-mile-long Iditarod Race from Anchorage to Nome in 1973, and dedicated it to the memory of the serum race. As a spectacular endurance race, full of hardships, it has taken on a life of its own. Redington died in 1999, the same year as Edgar Nollner, the last surviving relay runner. Heart failure claimed him in January at age 94 in his home in Galena. Nollner was 20 years old when he participated in the race to save Nome. Afterward, he made a living as a trapper, fisherman, barge pilot and woodcutter, fathering 23 children by two wives. In 1995 he was asked why he had volunteered. “I just wanted to help, that’s all,” he replied.
Seigrid Seppala survived the epidemic of 1925. Her father never raced again, nor did his famed lead dog Togo. Leonhard Seppala died in 1967. His ashes were scattered along the historic Iditarod Trail. Togo spent his last days in a breeding farm in Poland Springs, Maine, where he sired a breed of Siberian huskies—recognized as a separate breed in 1930. Most U.S. Siberian huskies are Togo’s descendants. Seppala was forced to put Togo to sleep at 16, due to the dog’s ailments.
Kaasen received $1,000 from H.K. Mulford Company. Later he accepted an offer from Hollywood and went to Los Angeles with Balto to star in a short film about the serum run. Returning to Nome, he worked for a while as a freighter for the mining company, and then in 1952 he retired and moved to Everett, Wash.
As for Balto, the schoolchildren of Cleveland, Ohio, learning that Kaasen was unable to financially care for the dog, gathered their pennies and bought Balto in 1927. They gave him to the Cleveland Zoo, where he lived out his days until 1933. The husky had already been honored by a bronze statue unveiled in New York City’s Central Park in 1926.
“Endurance, Fidelity, Intelligence” reads the inscription.
Originally published in the August 2006 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.