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ISSUE 110 - March 2010
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By David Rose
San Diego, California

They ran the Iditarod this week. You know, bundle up, hook up the dogs and race 1049+ miles across Alaska.

Lance Mackey won it, again, for his fourth straight time. Hans Gatt managed second and Jeff King third.

So when I saw the news story covering it, my question was why? Sure, it’s great to get out there and race your car, airplane, horse, or even your dogsled. But my question was why 1049+ miles over 8 or 9 days in the dead of the freezing winter? And why does it run from Anchorage (Willows actually) to Nome?
Finding out why drew me in to one of those special stories, common knowledge to some, but totally unknown to the rest of us.

First you have to appreciate what winter meant in Nome Alaska in 1924 (picture left, Nome in Winter). It literally closed the town to the outside world. The harbor froze out shipping, snow and ice covered the roads, completely closing them and the airplanes of 1924 never challenged the constant blizzard conditions. In winter the town and the surrounding Inuit villages were as isolated from the rest of the world as the moon.

Which was fine, most of the time. In normal circumstances the residents coped well. They kept in contact with one another; checked on the neighbors; stayed aware of who came and went (picture right, Front Street in Nome, Alaska).

But in that winter of 1924, something else had joined them. Just a cold most thought, or influenza at worst. Sore throats, a little cough, a little fever, some dizziness; the common cold was spreading through town. Or so it seemed to Dr. Curtis Welch. But by early January Dr. Welch, who essentially represented all of Nomes medical care, began to think his diagnosis of the common cold might bear a second thought. Weeks had passed and the little epidemic wasn't abating as it should have.
Dr. Welch came to realize that this had to be Diphtheria. Highly contagious, symptoms identical to the common cold. Bad cases of Diphtheria lead to liver and heart failure and the patient dies.

Still, not a problem, once it’s properly diagnosed medications deal with it quit well. Diphtheria antitoxins cure it and there were thousands of units available; until they discovered the antitoxins were out of date; expired the year before and now potentially lethal.

In desperation Dr. Welch telegraphed the US Health Service and they were able to track down 30,000 units of the Diphtheria antitoxin in Anchorage. But Anchorage! It lay 600 miles as the crow flys across the most forbidding winter landscape on the planet.
Dogsleds would be the only way. But impossible. Not in the dead of winter. Not over these mountainous, freezing, utterly barren landscapes. Plus the the antitoxin was packaged in fragile glass phials and if they didn’t break the serum could freeze on the way. They had to try. Wrapping the phials in fur against the cold, they padded them as best they could. From the rail station in Anchorage they traveled by train 200 miles north to Nenana. But from Nenana, the little 20 pound package of antitoxin was still 675 miles across sub-zero wasteland from Nome.

Impossible. A desperate attempt to deliver the antitoxin and save the villages had to be made by dogsled. Here the telegraph proved to be their godsend as with it they were able to line up relief teams all along the way to relay the serum.

So why do I bring this up here on an aircraft site? Because if you’ve followed many of my stories in past Eflyers you know I like to write about heroes and it took a lot of heroism to save the people living around Nome that winter.

The attempt to save them involved no fewer than twenty mushers and 150 courageous dogs. They would mush 24 hours a day for eight days, all day, all night. The teams would face minus 75 degree weather and winds so high they would actually blow the sleds over. Finally, Gunner Kassden, behind 12 Huskies and the lead dog Balto, having covered the final 54 miles of the relay, and suffering from frostbite arrived on Front Street at dawn amid hurricane force winds and minus 50 degree temperatures (picture left, Gunner Kassen and Balto).

The serum was intact and Dr. Welch administered what there was to the worst cases. Two days later a second dogsled relay delivered enough serum for everyone else. Still, the record shows seven died, although Dr. Welch believed there may have been a hundred more deaths in the villages surrounding the town , and that hundreds, even thousands had been saved by the efforts of the sled teams.

All mushers received full recognition and medals were presented them personally by the Governor of the Alaskan Territories. But the news stories centered on Kaasen and his dog, Balto. Singled out as representative of all the heroes of the effort, Kaasen and Balto were renowned world wide with Balto, a huge black Husky, becoming more famous than Rin Tin Tin.
(Left) As early as December of that year a bronze statues of Balto was unveiled in Central Park, New York City. Balto was in attendance at the dedication and also appeared to a crowd of 20,000 in Madison Square Garden. (Right) A statue of Balto also now stands in downtown Nome.
Perhaps the fame Balto and his harness mates earned with there stamina and courage would have served them well had it not been for the greed of one promoter. Just two years after their epic journey, Balto and six of the participating Huskys were discovered unhealthy and poorly treated at a sideshow in downtown Los Angeles by the visiting Cleaveland business man George Kimble. A deal for the dogs was struck. $2000 would be required to free the dogs. This was a huge sum in 1927 and Mr. Kimble went to the Cleveland newspapers with the story. The city raised the money in two weeks and on March 19, 1927, Balto and his six companions were given hero's welcomes in a parade through downtown Cleveland. The city supported the dogs in the dignity their courage had earned them for the rest of their lives (picture left, Balto - 1925).

Don’t miss the gripping near minute by minute account of the events of December 1925 through Feburary 1926 at Wikipedia - 1925 serum run to Nome

Read why it was decided not to attempt the rescue with aircraft and find out how the story became world news that January.

Discover the rest of this inspiring story and view a wonderful collection of period photographs at Earl Aversano’s great website “Balto’s True Story”here:

Discover why it is that when the Iditarod teams get together today, they revier the musher Seppala and his lead dog Toro as the true heros of the event.

Visit the history depicted at Nome’s
Read the story in Gay and Laney Salisbury's book, “The Cruelest Miles: The Heroic Story of Dogs and Men in a Race Against an Epidemic.” and watch for Walden Media’s film adaptaion of the book scheduled to begin shooting this summer.
By David Rose

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