In 1927 Balto, a Siberian Husky, was on display in Los Angeles. Clevelander George Kimble went there on a business trip. He stopped by at the sideshow where, for ten cents, patrons glimpsed through a small window at Balto and six other Huskies hooked up to their sled harnesses. These dogs were part of the Alaskan Serum Relay. Now they lived in a small dark room, looking sick and badly neglected.
Two years earlier Balto was the lead dog for one of the dogsled teams called on to deliver life-saving serum to Nome. In the winter of 1924/5 a diphtheria outbreak threatened the lives of area children. The closest serum available was 1,000 miles away in an Anchorage hospital. The hospital staff could get the medicine only as far as Nenana, 674 miles from Nome. Winter weather conditions made it impossible to deliver it any further by train, plane, or ship.
Huskies to the Rescue
After numerous telegraph conversations between Nome and Anchorage officials determined their only hope to get the serum and prevent more children dying was to organize a dogsled relay. On January 26 Anchorage hospital staff carefully packed the serum in canvas and shipped it overnight by train to Nenana. From there the first dogsled team started the remarkable relay for life
The plan was to use teams to move the package from Nenana to Nukato. Then other teams would get the medicine from there on to Nome. Dogsled racer and Siberian Husky breeder, Leonhard Seppala, was originally recruited to make the Nukato to Nome round trip of 630 miles. Ultimately it required over twenty teams to move the serum from Nenana to Nome.
In 1925 Seppala’s dog Balto was a six-year old, neutered male. He worked primarily hauling mining supplies around the Nome area because he was considered an inferior Husky. On February 1 Seppala and his twelve-year old lead dog, Togo, got to the meeting station at 8 p.m., having pulled their cargo through the trecherous Norton Sound. The amazing huskies covered 84 miles in one day, averaging eight miles an hour in temperatures that reached minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
Neither Snow Nor Frigid Temperatures Nor Dark of Night
Gunner Kaasen, with Balto and twelve other dogs, set out at 10 p.m., in whiteout conditions. The winds were so strong at one one point they blew the sled and dogs over. Kaasen dug into the snow drifts to rescue the precious cargo. With Balto in the lead, the team pushed on through the night.
The team was two miles beyond the next transfer point before Kaasen realized he had passed it. He said later the snow was so thick at times he couldn’t see the dog team in front of him. Knowing how precious time was, he decided to keep going.
The team got to the next station at 3 a.m. to find the musher sleeping. He assumed Kaaser’s team stayed at the previous post, waiting for the blizzard conditions to let up. Kaasen opted not to wake the man. With Balto still leading, the team pushed on again.
They arrived in Nome at 5:30 a.m. February 2. Kaasen declared Balto to be a “damn fine dog” before collapsing. Balto more than proved his worth that night. Kaasen credited him with saving all their lives several times in their desperate determination to deliver the medicine.
From Hero to Hovel
By the end of February the story of the serum relay was national news. Kaasen accepted an invitation to bring Balto and the rest of the team to Hollywood to appear in a movie about the phenomenal relay. Director Sol Lesser’s film, “Balto’s Race to Nome,” helped make Balto a national hero. For nine months the team toured the country, promoting the movie. Eventually Kaasen returned to Alaska, leaving the dogs with the tour promoter. The promoter then sold Balto and six of the dogs to a sideshow owner. That is were Kimble found them two years after their amazing cross country race against time.
The sideshow man offered to sell Kimble the dogs for $2,000. Kimble didn’t have the money, but knew how to raise it. He returned to Cleveland where he got school children to donate their milk money and adults to pass the hat at work. Working with area businesses, kennel clubs and other places he raised the rescue money in ten days. On March 19, 1927 Balto and six of his teammates got a hero’s welcome parading through downtown Cleveland. Balto lived out his remaining years in the Cleveland Brookside Zoo. Today he is remembered in a display at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
Some details for this blog come from the website “Serum Relay of 1925” managed by Earl J. Aversano. You can read more fascinating details about the dogsled rescue operation there.