September 11, 2015 | Posted in Discover These Doggies!!


Gunnar Kaasen with Balto

In January of 1925, a deadly outbreak of diphtheria threatened to kill hundreds of children in the territory of Alaska.

One doctor and four nurses ran the only hospital near Nome, and they suspected a case of the deadly illness had been contracted by a local child. The Board of Health soon confirmed that it was indeed diphtheria, as more children became ill.

The existing antitoxin had passed the expiration date for effectiveness and no one had thought diphtheria was any longer a threat. An urgent cry went out for help. One thousand miles away, extra serum was located in Seattle, Washington, but the engine on their only available airplane was frozen and unfit to use.

Arrangements were made to send the serum by train from Seattle to Anchorage, Alaska. But what could be done then?  A wild idea was launched to form a relay team of 20 mushers (drivers) and 150 sled dogs to follow the mail team trail to cover the more than 600 miles to Nome. It seemed unlikely it could be accomplished, because temperatures were often -40° F, but it was the only hope.


Statue of Balto in Central Park (New York City)

The serum was loaded with the first team of dogs and they took off into the snow and frigid air. When the final leg of the journey began, a Siberian Husky named Balto, thought by many to be unfit to handle the job, was somehow called upon to serve as lead dog on the team. He not only was fit – he potentially saved the life of his musher and the team, when he sensed the need to stop just short of sending the team into what turned out to be a frozen river that might have cracked under all of their weight. He journeyed on, through “whiteouts” when there was so much snow it was almost impossible to see…and reached Nome, bringing the serum to the town within 5 ½ days of the time it first left on its journey. The serum was given to the children, in time to prevent a devastating outbreak.

Balto was hailed as a hero and he was held in high regard…for a while. But there was jealousy between his handler/musher, Norwegian Gunnar Kassen and the handler/musher of another successful portion of the effort, Leonhard Seppala, who felt his dog Togo had been equally as much involved in the serum run. Eventually bad blood cast gloom over the whole episode. Balto and several of his team mates ended up touring as carnival acts and finally ended up in a run-down museum in Los Angeles, where they were malnourished. It was a tragic turn of events for heroes. But a Cleveland, Ohio businessman visited the museum and was so shocked that he vowed to bring the dogs home to Cleveland where they could be well taken care of.

A “Save Balto Fund” was established, since the current museum owner wanted $2000 for the six dogs he owned. The public came to the rescue and even schoolchildren chipped in to raise the money.

Balto and his canine friends were moved to the Cleveland Zoo, which on the surface might not seem like a better move. But they were greeted with a hero’s welcome when they arrived in the city, and 15,000 people turned out the first day to see them, claiming that Balto was the main reason they were visiting. Balto and his friends had new quarters that were luxurious by canine standards.

Balto passed away in 1933, at the ripe old age of 14. And he has not yet been forgotten. His body was treated by a taxidermist and even today it can be seen at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. He stands even today, as if ready to break that eternity-piercing gaze at a moment’s notice and get ready for action should he hear Gunnar Kaasen’s command. A statue also stands in New York’s Central Park, near the Children’s Zoo, honoring the difference he made in children’s lives.  A 1995 animated film, “Balto”, was produced by Stephen Spielberg’s company and actor Kevin Bacon provided the voice for Balto.

Beginning in 1973, Alaska has held the Iditarod, a race over the same mail route the sled dogs covered during the serum run, to honor their act of heroism. It seems Balto lives on in the minds and hearts of many people.