Dogs have been herald as man’s best friend for centuries. They are always there when we need them, giving us unconditional love and not asking anything in return except for love. In a corner of Central Park in New York City is a monument to a dog that represents many dogs from several dog sled teams in a historically important time period in Alaska.

Nome 1900
Nome 1900

Nome, Alaska

The year is 1925. The location is Nome, a village just 2 degrees south of the Arctic Circle that saw a boom in population when gold was discovered there in 1899. The terrain is what some people would describe as bleak with small scrub trees and a flat tundra that is covered with ice and snow for many months out of the year. The indigenous people who are friendly, quick to smile and to welcome others to their table for a meal are also experts in efficiently living off the land and carving out a home in a land that many would consider inhospitable.

Nome had 1 doctor and 4 nurses in a 25 bed hospital when the potentially deadly diphtheria epidemic broke out. The antitoxin that the doctor had on hand was not enough to treat the population of Nome, which at that time was just under 1500, and the antitoxin had expired.

The Call

The doctor made an emergency call to have additional vials of antitoxin transported to Nome. The additional antitoxin was located in the west coast hospitals. The problem was that transportation was very limited in Alaska at that time, in addition, it was winter which reduced travel options even more. To get the antitoxin to Nome from the west coast would take well over a month via plane, train and then dog sled team. The people of Nome did not have the luxury of waiting 30 days!

A doctor in Anchorage at the  Anchorage Railroad Hospital discovered some forgotten vials of the antitoxin in a store-room that he wrapped in quilting and put in a metal container and then sent it to Nenana, a town that was as far north as the train could go.

It was arranged that dog mushers would get the serum in Nenana at the same time that mushers would start the trip from Nome towards Nenana. They would meet along the trail at the half way point in Nualto and create a relay to get the serum to the people of Nome.

balto map
Historic map of trail from Nenana to Nome

674 brutal winter miles in 6 days

The trail from Nenana to Nome is 674 miles (1085 km) long and under normal circumstances would take 30 days to traverse. The best dog mushers and dog teams were recruited to relay the serum from Nenana to Nome in less than 6 days, which was how long it was estimated that the serum would survive in the brutal winter conditions of Alaska.

dog sled team
Balto and the dog sled team

Balto, a black and white Siberian husky, was the lead dog of the dog sled team run by Gunnar Kaasan. Balto lead the dog sled team in nearly a straight line through  a blizzard with white out conditions so intense that Kaasan could hardly see the dogs that were harnessed the closest to the sled. The blizzard winds were so severe that at one point Kaasan nearly lost the serum when the wind grabbed the sled and sent it tumbling. The serum became dislodged and fell in the snow drifts. Kaasan severely frostbite his hands searching for the serum.

balto kaasan
Gunnar Kaasan and Balto

Blizzard winds

Through blizzards, frostbite, temperatures that ranged between -50F and -85F (-46C and -65C) with the wind chill and wind gusts at an estimated 80 mph it took 20 mushers and 150 sled dogs, many of who lost their lives on the trail because of the cold 5 1/2 days to make the 674 mile (1085 km) trip to Nome. The serum was delivered to the doctor in tact and with out a single broken vial!

Today the race to save the people of  Nome is celebrated every year with the Iditarod Sled Dog race which takes place during the Fur Rondy Festival in February.

The monument to Balto and the other 4-legged heroes of that momentous trip was created by Frederick Roth on December 15, 1925.

About Donna

Helping mid-life empty nesters discover adventurous, authentic experiences in cuisine, cocktails, and countries - from beach bars to five-stars

Page with Comments

  1. I am glad that you thought the post was interesting! I am working on a longer post that will break in January/February for the Iditarod and Fur Rondy that will talk more in depth about the individual mushers, dogs and more of the issues surrounding the race to Nome with the serum. Stay tuned!!

  2. Man this post makes me mad at myself because I planned to go to Nome when I leave Denali this season but axed the trip. Next year!!! I did not realize this was the reason for the start of the Iditarod. Interesting post.

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