Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
1925 serum run to Nome
During the 1925 serum run to Nome, also known as the "Great Race of Mercy", 20 mushers and about 150 sled dogs relayed diphtheria antitoxin 674 miles (1,085 km) by dog sled across the U.S. territory of Alaska in a record-breaking five and a half days, saving the small city of Nome and the surrounding communities from an incipient epidemic. Both the mushers and their dogs were portrayed as heroes in the newly popular medium of radio, and received headline coverage in newspapers across the United States. The black husky Balto in particular, who led the team that covered the final stretch into Nome, became the most famous canine celebrity of the era after Rin Tin Tin, and his statue is still one of the most popular tourist attractions in New York City's Central Park. The publicity also helped spur an inoculation campaign in the U.S. that dramatically reduced the threat of the disease.
The sled dog was the primary means of transportation and communication in sub-arctic communities around the world, and the race became both the last great hurrah and the most famous event in the history of mushing, before first aircraft in the 1930s and then the snowmobile in the 1960s drove the dog sled almost into extinction. The resurgence of recreational mushing in Alaska since the 1970s is a direct result of the tremendous popularity the the Iditarod dog sled race, which honors of the history of dog mushing with many traditions that commemorate the serum run.
Nome lies just two degrees south of the Arctic Circle, and while greatly diminished from its peak of 20,000 during the gold rush days at the turn of the 20th century, it was still the largest town in the northern half of Alaska in 1925 with 455 Inuit and 975 settlers of European descent. (Salisbury, 2005, page 16) From November to July, the port on the southern shore of the Seward Peninsula of the Bering Sea was icebound and inaccessible by steamship, and the days shortened with the onset of the polar night. The only link to the rest of the world during the winter was the Iditarod Trail, which ran 938 miles (1,510 km) from the port of Seward in the south, across several mountain ranges and the vast Alaska Interior before reaching Nome. While within a decade bush pilots would become the dominant method of transportation during the winter months, the primary source of mail and needed supplies in 1925 was the dog sled.
Mail from the "Outside" (outside the Alaska Territory) was transported 420 miles (676 km) by train from the icefree port of Seward to Nenana, and then was transported the 674 miles (1,085 km) from Nenana to Nome by dog sled, which normally took 25 days.
The only doctor in Nome and the surrounding communities was Curtis Welch, who was supported by four nurses at the 24-bed Maynard Columbus Hospital. In the summer of 1924, his supply of 8,000 units of diphtheria antitoxin (from 1918) expired, but the order he placed with the health commissioner in Juneau did not arrive before the port closed.
Shortly after the departure of the last ship of the year, the Alameda, a two-year old Inuit from the nearby village of Holy Cross became the first to display symptoms of diphtheria. Welch diagnosed it as tonsillitis, dismissing diphtheria because no one else in the child's family or village showed signs of the disease, which is extremely contagious and can survive for weeks outside the body. The child died the next morning, and an abnormally large number of cases of tonsillitis were diagnosed through December, including another fatality on December 28, which is rare. The child's mother refused to allow an autopsy. Two more Inuit children died, and on January 20 the first case of diphtheria was diagnosed in 3 year old Bill Barnett, who had the characteristic grayish lesions on his throat and in his nasal membranes. Welch did not adminster the antitoxin, because he was worried the expired batch might weaken the boy, who died the next day.
On January 21, seven year old Bessie Stanley was diagnosed in the late stages of the disease, and was injected with 6,000 units of antitoxin. She died later that day. The same evening, Welch called Mayor George Maynard, and arranged an emergency town council meeting. Welch announced he needed at least one million units to stave off an epidemic. The council immediately implemented a quarantine, and Emily Morgan was appointed Quarantine Nurse.
On January 22, 1925, Welch sent a radio telegram via the U.S. Army Signal Corps and alerted all major towns in Alaska including the governor in Juneau of the public health risk. A second to the U.S. Public Health Service in Washington, D.C. read:
- AN EPIDEMIC OF DIPHTHERIA IS ALMOST INEVITABLE HERE STOP I AM IN URGENT NEED OF ONE MILLION UNITS OF DIPHTHERIA ANTITOXIN STOP MAIL IS ONLY FORM OF TRANSPORTATION STOP I HAVE MADE APPLICATION TO COMMISSIONER OF HEALTH OF THE TERRITORIES FOR ANTITOXIN ALREADY STOP THERE ARE ABOUT 3000¢WHITE [sic] NATIVES IN THE DISTRICT
By January 24 there were two more fatalities, and Welch and Morgan diagnosed 20 more confirmed cases, and 50 more at risk. The number of people threatened in the area of northwest Alaska centered around Nome was about 10,000, and the expected mortality rate was close to 100 percent without the antitoxin. A previous influenza epidemic across the Seward Peninsula in 1918 and 1919 wiped out about 50 percent of the native population of Nome, and 8 percent of the native population of Alaska. More than 1,000 people died in northwest Alaska, and double that across the state, and the majority were Inuit. The Native Americans had no resistance to either of these diseases.(Salisbury, 2005, pages 42, 50)
Wings versus paws
At the January 24 meeting of the board of health superintendant Mark Summers of the Hammon Consolidated Gold Fields proposed a dogsled relay, using two fast teams. One would start at Nenana and the other at Nome, and they would meet at Nulato. His employee, the Norwegian Leonhard Seppala , was the obvious and only choice for 630-mile (1,014 km) round trip from Nome to Nulato and back. He had previously made the run from Nome to Nulato in a record-breaking four days, won the All-Alaska Sweepstakes three times, and had become something of a legend for his athletic ability and rapport with his Siberian huskies. His lead dog Togo was equally famous for his leadership, intelligence, and ability to sense danger.
Mayor Maynard proposed flying the antitoxin by aircraft. In February 1924, the first winter aircraft flight in Alaska had been conducted between Fairbanks and McGrath by Carl Ben Eilson, who flew a reliable De Havilland issued by the U.S. Post Office on 8 experimental trips. The longest flight was only 260 miles (418 km), the worst conditions were −10 °F (-23 °C) which required so much winter clothing that the plane was almost unflyable, and the plane made several crash landings .
The only planes operating in Alaska in 1925 were three World War I vintage Standard J-1 biplanes from the Fairbanks Airplane Corporation that were dismantled for the winter, had open cockpits, and had water-cooled engines that were unreliable in cold weather. Since both pilots were in the continental United States, Alaska Delegate Dan Sutherland attempted to get the authorization to use an inexperienced pilot, Roy Darling.
While potentially quicker, the board of health rejected the option and voted unanimously for the dogsled relay. Seppala was notified that evening and immediately began to train.
The U.S. Public Health Service had located 1.1 million units of serum in West Coast hospitals which could be shipped to Seattle, and then transported to Alaska. The Alameda would be the next ship north, and would not arrive in Seattle until January 31, and then would take another 6 to 7 days to arrive in Seward. On January 26, 300,000 units were discovered in Anchorage Railroad Hospital, when the chief of surgery, John Beeson, heard of the need. At Governor Bone's order, it was packed and handed to conductor Frank Knight, who arrived in Nenana on February 27. While not sufficient to defeat the epidemic, the 300,000 units could hold it at bay until the larger shipment arrived.
The temperatures across the Interior were at 20-year lows due to a high pressure system from the Arctic, and in Fairbanks the temperature was −50 °F (−45 °C). A second system was burying the Panhandle, as 25 mi/h (40 km/h) winds swept snow into 10 foot (3 m) drifts. Travel by sea was hazardous, and across the Interior most forms of transportation shut down. In addition, there were limited hours of daylight to fly, due to the polar night.
While the first batch of serum was traveling to Nenana, Governor Scott Bone gave final authorization to the dog relay, but ordered Edward Wetzler, the U.S. Post Office inspector, to arrange a relay of the best drivers and dogs across the Interior. The teams would travel day and night until they handed off the package to Seppala at Nulato.
The decision outraged William Fendtriss "Wrong Font" Thompson, publisher of the Daily Fairbanks News-Miner and airplane advocate, who helped line up the pilot and plane. He used his paper to write scatching editorials.
The mail route from Nenana to Nome crossed the barren Alaska Interior, following the Tenana River for 137 miles (220 km) to the village Tenana at the junction with the Yukon River, and then following the Yukon for 230 miles (370 km) to Kaltag. The route then passed west 90 miles (145 km) over the Kaltag Portage and the forests and plateaus of the Kuskokwim Mountains to Unalakleet on the shore of Norton Sound. The route then continued for 208 miles (335 km) northwest around the southern shore of the Seward Peninsula with no protection from gales and blizzards, including a 42 mile (68 km) stretch across the shifting ice of the Bering Sea. In total, 674 miles (1,085 km).
Wetzler contacted Tom Parson, and agent of the Northern Commercial Company, which contracted to deliver mail between Fairbanks and Unalakleet. Telephone and telegrams turned the drivers back to their assigned roadhouses. The mail carriers held a revered position in the territory, and were the best dog punchers in Alaska. The majority of relay drivers across the Interior were native Athabaskans, direct descendants of the original dog mushers.
The first musher in the relay was "Wild Bill" Shannon, who was handed the 20 pound (9 kg) package at the train station in Nenana on January 27 at 9:00 PM AKST by Knight. Despite a temperature of −50 °F (−45 °C), Shannon left immediately with his team of 9 inexperienced dogs, led by Blackie. The temperature began to drop, and the team was forced onto the colder ice of the river because the trail had been destroyed by horses. Despite jogging alongside the sled to keep warm Shannon developed hypothermia. He reached Minto at 3 AM, with parts of his face black from frostbite. The temperature was −62 °F (−52 °C). After warming the serum by the fire and resting for four hours, Shannon dropped three dogs and left with the remaining 6. The three dogs died shortly after Shannon returned for them, and a fourth may have perished as well.
Half-Athabaskan Edgar Kallands arrived in Minto the night before, and was sent back to Tolovana, traveling 70 mi (113 km) the day before the relay. Shannon and his team arrived in bad shape at 11 AM, and handed over the serum. After warming the serum in the roadhouse, Kallands headed into the forest. The temperature had risen to −56 °F (−49 °C), and according to at least one report the owner of the roadhouse at Manley Hot Springs had to pour hot water over Kallands' hands to get them off the sled's handlebar when he arrived at 4 PM.
No new cases of diphtheria were diagnosed on January 28, but two new cases were diagnosed on January 29 The quarantine had been obeyed but lack of diagnostic tools and the contagiousness of the strain rendered it ineffective. More units of serum were discovered around Juneau the same. While no count exists, the estimate based on weight is roughly 125,000 units, enough to treat 4 to 6 patients. The crisis had become headline news in newspapers, including San Francisco, Cleveland, Washington D.C., and New York, and spread to the radio sets which were just becoming common. The storm system from Alaska hit the continental United States, and record lows in New York, and freezing the Hudson River.
A fifth death occurred on January 30. Maynard and Sutherland renewed their campaign for flying the remaining serum by airplane. Different proposals included flying a large airplane 2,000 miles (3,200 km) from Seattle to Nome, carrying a plane to edge the ice pack via Navy ship and launching it, and the original plan of flying the serum from Fairbanks. Despite receiving headline coverage across the country, the support of several cabinet departments, and from Arctic explorer Roald Amundsen , the plans were rejected by experienced pilots, the Navy, and Governor Bone. Thompson's paper again became virulent.
In respone, Bone decided to speed up the relay and authorized the addition of more drivers to Seppala's leg of the relay, so they could travel without rest. Seppala was still scheduled to cover the most dangerous leg, the shortcut across Norton Sound, but the telephone and telegraph systems bypassed the small villages he was passing through, and there was no way to tell him to wait at Shaktoolik. The plan relied on the driver from the north catching Seppala on the trail. Summers arranged for drivers along the last leg, including Seppala's colleague Gunnar Kaasen.
From Manley Hot Springs, the serum passed through largely Athabascan hands before George Nollner delivered it to Charlie Evans at Bishop Mountain on January 30 at 3 AM. The temperature had warmed slightly but at &minus62 ° (−52 °C) was dropping again. Evans relied on his lead dogs when he passed through ice fog where the Koyukuk River had broken through and surged over the ice, but forgot to protect the groins of his two short-haired mixed breed lead dogs with rabbit skins. Both dogs collapsed with frostbite, Evans may have had to lead the team the remaining distance to Nulato himself. He arrived at 10 AM; both dogs were dead. Tommy Patsy departed within half an hour.
The serum crossed then the Kaltag Portage in the hands of "Jackscrew" and the Inuit Victor Anagick, who handed it to his fellow Inuit Myles Gonangnan on the shores of the Sound, at Unalakleet on March 31 at 5 AM. Gonangan saw the signs of a storm brewing, and decided not to take the shortcut across the dangerous ice of the Sound. He departed at 5:30 AM, and as he crossed the hills, "the eddies of drifting, swirling snow passing between the dog's legs and under the bellies made them appear to be fording a fast running river." (Salisbury, 2003, page 203). The whiteout conditions cleared as he reached the shore, and the gale-force winds drove the wind chill to −70 °F (−57 °C). At 3 PM he arrived at Shaktoolik. Seppala was not there, but Henry Ivanoff was waiting just in case.
On January 30, the number of case in Nome had reached 27 and the antitoxin was depleted. According to a reporter living in Nome, "All hope is in the dogs and their heroic drivers... Nome appears to be a deserted city." (Salisbury, 2003, page 205) With the report of Gonangan's progress on January 31, Welch believed the serum would arrived the next day.
Leonhard Seppala and his dog sled team, with his lead dog Togo, traveled 170 miles (274 km) from Nome from January 27 to January 31 into the oncoming storm. They took the shortcut across the Norton Sound, and headed toward Shaktoolik. . The temperature in Nome was a relatively warm −20 °F (−30 °C), but in Shaktoolik the temperature was estimated at −30 °F (−34 °C), and the gale force winds causing a wind chill of −85 °F (−65°C).
Henry Ivanoff's team into a reindeer and got tangled up just outside of Shaktoolik. Seppala still believed he had more than 100 miles (160 km) to go and was racing to get off the Norton Sound before the storm hit. He was passing the team when Ivanoff shouted, "The serum! The serum! I have it here!" (Salisbury, 2003, page 207)
With the news of the worsening epidemic, Seppala decided to brave the storm and once again set out across the exposed open ice of the Norton Sound when he reached Ungalik, after dark. The temperature was estimated at −30 °F (−35 °C), but the wind chill with the gale force winds was −85 °F (−65 °C). Togo led the team in a straight line through the dark, and they arrived at the roadhouse in Isaac's Point on the other side at 8 PM. In one day, they had traveled 84 miles (135 mk), averaging 8 mi/h (13 km/h). The team rested, and departed at 2 AM into the full power of the storm.
During the night the temperature dropped to −40 °F (−40 °C), and the wind increased to storm force (at least 65 mi/h, or 105 km/h). The team ran across the ice, which was breaking up, while following the shoreline. They returned to shore to cross Little McKinley Mountain , climbing 5,000 feet (1,500 m). After descending to the next roadhouse in Golovin, Seppala passed the serum to Charlie Olsen on February 1 at 3 PM.
On February 1, the number of cases rose to 28. The serum en route was sufficient to treat 30 people. With the powerful blizzard raging and winds of 80 mi/h (129 km/h), Welch ordered a stop to the relay until the storm passed, reasoning that a delay was better than the risk of losing it all. Messages were left at Solomon and Port Safety before the lines went dead.
Olsen was blown off the trail, and suffered severe frostbite in his hands while putting blankets on his dogs. The wind chill was −70 °F (−57 °C). He arrived at Bluff on February 1 at 7 PM in poor shape. Gunnar Kaasen waited until 10 PM for the storm to break, but it only got worse and the drifts would soon block the trail so he departed into a headwind.
Kaasen traveled through the night, through drifts, and river overflow over the 600 foot (180 m) Topkok Mountain. Balto led the team through visibility so poor that Kaasen could not always see the dogs harnessed closest to the sled. He was two miles (3 km) past Solomon before he realized it, and kept going. The winds after Solomon were so severe that his sled flipped over and he almost lost the cylinder containing the serum when it fell off and became buried in the snow. He acquired frostbite when he had to use his bare hands to feel for the cylinder.
Kaasen reached Point Safety ahead of schedule on February 2, at 3 AM. Ed Rohn believed that Kaasen and the relay was halted at Solomon, so he was sleeping. Since the weather was improving, it would take time to prepare Rohn's team, and Balto and the other dogs were moving well, Kaasen pressed on the remaining 25 miles (40 km) to Nome, reaching Front Street at 5:30 AM. Not a single ampule was broken, and the antitoxin was thawed and ready by noon.
Together, the teams covered the 674 miles in 127 and a half hours, which was considered a world record, all done in incredibly subzero temperatures in near-blizzard conditions and hurricane-force winds. Some dogs froze to death during the trip.
Margaret Curran from the Solomon roadhouse was infected, which raised fears that the disease might spread from patrons of the roadhouse to other communities. The 1.1 million units had left Seattle on January 31, and was not due by dog sled until January 8. Welch asked for half the serum to be delivered by airplane from Fairbanks. Contacted Thompson and Sutherland, and Darling made a test flight the next morning. With his health advisor, Governor Bone concluded the cases in Nome were actually going down, and withheld permission, but but preparations went ahead. The U.S. Navy moved a minesweeper north from Seattle, and the Signal Corps were ordered to light fires to guide the planes.
By February 3, the original 300,000 had proved to be still effective, and the epidemic was under control. A sixth death, probably unrelated to diphtheria, was widely reported as a new outbreak of the disease. The batch from Seattle arrived on board the Admiral Watson on February 7. Acceding to pressure, Governor Bone authorized half to be delivered by plane. On February 8 the first half of the second shipment began its trip by dog sled, while the plane failed to start when a broken radiator shutter caused the engine overheated. The plane failed the next day as well, and the mission was scrapped. Thompson was gracious in his editorials.
The second relay included many of the same drivers, and also faced harsh conditions. The serum arrived on February 15.
The death toll is officially listed as either 5, 6, or 7, but Welch later estimated there were probably at least 100 additional cases among "the Eskimo camps outside the city. The Natives have a habit of burying their children without reporting the death". Forty-three cases new cases were diagnosed in 1926, but they were easily managed with the fresh supply of serum. (Salisbury, 2003, footnotes on page 235 and 243)
All human participants received letters of commendation from President Calvin Coolidge, and the Senate stopped work to recognize the event. Each musher during the first relay received a gold medal from the H. K. Mulford company, and the territory awarded them each USD $25. Poems and letters from children poured in, and spontaneous fund raising campaigns sprang up around the country.
Gunnar Kaasen and his team became celebrities and toured the West Coast from February 1925 to February 1926, and even starred in a 30-minute film entitled Balto's Race to Nome. A statue of Balto by Frederick Roth was unveiled New York City's Central Park during a visit on December 15, 1925, and another in downtown Anchorage. Balto the other dogs became part of a sideshow and lived in horrible conditions until they were rescued by George Kimble and fund raising campaign by the children of Cleveland, Ohio. On March 19, 1927, Balto received a hero's welcome as they arrived at their permanent home at the Cleveland Zoo . After Balto's death on March 14, 1933, he was mounted and placed on display in the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
But many mushers today consider Seppala and Togo to be the true heroes of the run as together they covered the longest and most hazardous leg. They made a round trip of 261 miles (420 km) from Nome to Shaktoolik and back to Golovin, and delivered the serum a total of 91 miles (146 km), almost double the distance of any other team. After Kaasen's return, he was accused of being a glory hog who deliberately. Seppala became upset when the media attributed Togo's achievements to Balto, and commented, "it was almost more than I could bear when the 'newspaper dog' Balto received a statue for his 'glorious achievements'". (Salisbury & Salisbury, 2003, page 248)
In October 1926, Seppala took Togo and his team on a tour from Seattle to California, and then across the Midwest to New England, and consistently drew huge crowds. They were featured at Madison Square Gardens in New York City for 10 days, and Togo received a gold medal from Roald Amundsen. In New England Seppala's team of Siberian huskies ran in many races, easily defeating the local Chinooks. Seppala sold most of his team to a kennel in Poland Springs, Maine , and most huskies in the U.S. can trace their descent from one of these dogs. Seppala visited Togo, until he was put to sleep on December 5, 1929. After his death, Seppala had Togo preserved and mounted, and today the dog is on display in a glass case at the Iditarod museum in Wasilla, Alaska.
None of the other mushers received the same degree of attention, though Wild Bill Shannon briefly toured with Blackie. The media largely ignored the Athabaskan and Inuit mushers, who covered two-thirds the distance to Nome. According to Edgard Kallands, "it was just an every day occurence as far as we were concerned". (Salisbury & Salisbury, 2003, page 255)
The serum race helped the Kelly Act of, which was signed into law on February 2. The bill allowed private aviation companies to bid on mail delivery contracts. Technology improved and in a decade, air mail routes were established in Alaska. The last private dog sled to deliver mail under contract took place in 1938, and the last U.S. Post Office dog sled route closed in 1963. Dog sledding remained in the rural Interior but became nearly extinct when snowmobiles spread in the 1960s. Mushing was revitalized as a recreational sport in the 1970s with the immense popularity of the Iditarod.
While the Iditarod dog sled race, which runs more than 1,000 miles (1,600 km) across from Anchorage to Nome, is actually based on the All-Alaska Sweepstakes, it has many traditions which commemorate the race, and especially Seppala and Togo. The honorary mushers for the first seven races was Leonhard Seppala, and other serum run participants, including "Wild Bill" Shannon, Edgar Kallands, Bill McCarty, Charlie Evans, Edgar Nollner, Harry Pitka, and Henry Ivanoff have also been honored. The 2005 Iditarod honored Jirdes Winther Baxter, the last known survivor of the epidemic. The position is now known as Leonhard Seppala's Honorary Musher, and the Leonhard Seppala Humanitarian Award is given to the musher who provides the best dog care while still remaining competitive, and the Leonhard Seppala Heritage Grant is an Iditarod scholarship. The two races follow the same route from Ruby to Nome.
A reenactment of the serum run was held in 1975, which took 6 days longer than the 1925 serum run. Many of the participants were descendants of the original 20. In 1985, President Ronald Reagan sent a letter of recognition to Charlie Evans, Edgar Nollner, and Bill McCarty, the only remaining survivors. Nollner was the last to die, on January 18, 1999 of a heart attack.
Relay participants and distances
Mushers (in order) and the distance they covered included:
|January 27||"Wild" Bill Shannon||Nenana to Tolovana||52 mi (84 km)|
|January 28||Edgar Kallands||Tolovana to Manley Hot Springs||31 mi (50 km)|
|Dan Green||Manley Hot Springs to Fish Lake||28 mi (45 km)|
|Johnny Folger||Fish Lake to Tanana||26 mi (42 km)|
|January 29||Sam Joseph||Tanana to Kallands||34 mi (55 km)|
|Titus Nikolai||Kallands to Nine Mile Cabin||24 mi (39 km)|
|Dan Corning||Nine Mile Cabin to Kokrines||30 mi (48 km)|
|Harry Pitka||Kokrines to Ruby||30 mi (48 km)|
|Bill McCarty||Ruby to Whiskey Creek||28 mi (45 km)|
|Edgar Nollner||Whiskey Creek to Galena||24 mi (39 km)|
|January 30||George Nollner||Galena to Bishop Mountain||18 mi (29 km)|
|Charlie Evans||Bishop Mountain to Nulato||30 mi (48 km)|
|Tommy Patsy||Nulato to Kaltag||36 mi (58 km)|
|Jackscrew||Kaltag to Old Woman Shelter||40 mi (64 km)|
|Victor Anagick||Old Woman Shelter to Unalakleet||34 mi (55 km)|
|January 31||Myles Gonangnan||Unalakleet to Shaktoolik||40 mi (64 km)|
|Henry Ivanoff||Shaktoolik to just outside Shaktoolik||0 mi (0 km)|
|Leonhard Seppala||Just outside Shaktoolik to Golovin||91 mi (146 km)|
|February 1||Charlie Olson||Golovin to Bluff||25 mi (40 km)|
|Gunnar Kaasen||Bluff to Nome||53 mi (85 km)|
- Iditarod Trail Committee. 2004 special musher awards. Retrieved March 21, 2005.
- --. Honorary mushers]. Retrieved March 21, 2005.
- --. Seppala heritage grant. Retrieved March 21, 2005.
- Gay Salisbury and Laney Salisbury (2003). The Cruelest Miles. ISBN 0-393-01962-4
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