While many details of the great Serum Run of 1925 have faded into history, the names of two famous Alaska dogs, Togo and Balto, have spanned the decades.
Their owner, Norwegian-born Leonhard Seppala, came to Nome during the height of its gold rush on June 14, 1900. He investigated some gold claims of his own, and later worked for a mining company, employed by Jafet Lindeberg, one of the three famous "Lucky Swedes" who discovered gold on Anvil Creek in 1898. Seppala drove dogs between the camps, moving supplies and transporting miners who needed medical care in Nome. The dogs were imports from Siberia, a team of huskies that were intended for a polar expedition headed by Roald Amundsen. When the expedition was cancelled, the team was given to Seppala. Togo, named for the Japanese admiral Togo Heihachiro (1848-1934), was born in 1913 and developed into Seppala's favorite.
Seppala handily won Nome's All-Alaska Sweepstakes in 1915, 1916, and 1917 with his Siberians. In the 1916 All-Alaska Sweepstakes he traveled 410 miles in 80 hours, 38 minutes, and 5 seconds. He also held the record time between Nenana and Nulato, as well as many other local races in the years to follow. Seppala and Togo were celebrities. And those who lost against Seppala's lean, smaller-frame dogs disdainfully called them "Siberian rats."
Togo was 12 years old when he and Seppala were called to assist in the epic rescue effort in 1925. An outbreak of diphtheria had bloomed in Nome and without a delivery of antitoxin, the population of the entire region would be exposed. Thousands would die. With Seppala, 19 other dog mushers and their teams were enlisted to carry the life-saving diphtheria serum in a relay across 675 miles of wilderness during the dead of winter. Gunnar Kaasen, an assistant to Seppala, chose a three-year-old freight dog named Balto to lead on his portion of the relay. The heavier black husky was named after one of the first men to cross the Greenland Ice Cap, Samuel J. Balto.
Togo and Balto, both Seppala Siberians, would perform spectacularly, demonstrating their superior bloodlines and training.
Of the 20 mushers on the relay, Seppala ran the greatest distance, and through some of the most dangerous conditions on the trail. Originally Seppala and one other musher were going to carry the serum all the way, the first musher traveling from Nenana to Nulato; Seppala, from Nulato to Nome. Thinking it would be up to him and the other man, Seppala was already on the trail when territorial Governor Scott Bone amended the plan to incorporate mail-carrier mushers and make it a 20-team relay. Unaware of the change, Seppala took a shortcut across Norton Sound in perilous conditions. Some 170 miles into the journey, just outside Shakloolik, Seppala was intercepted by another musher who shouted that he had the serum. Seppala collected it, turned and carried it to Golovin, another 91 miles. In the end, Togo and the Seppala team ran 260 miles, while other mushers ran between 25 and 40 miles each. Bursting with pride, Seppala would later say that his old Togo had never performed better.
In one account of Togo's bravery, Seppala and the team were stranded for several hours on a Norton Sound ice floe after the ice on which they were traveling broke free. At Seppala's urging, Togo jumped across a five-foot gap to shore ice in his harness to pull the floe closer to shore. As the story goes, his harness snapped from the strain of pulling, but Togo jumped into the water after it, took the harness in his teeth and kept pulling, closing the gap so the team could get to shore.
Gunnar Kaasen was exhausted, frostbitten and snowblind when Balto led him into Nome on February 2, 1925, after treading 53 miles of rugged trail. Kaasen had relied heavily on Balto to find the way during whiteout conditions, and the young dog had performed admirably.
Balto would be celebrated in newspapers across the national as the dog who delivered the serum and saved the town. After the race, Kaasen, who by then owned Balto, took his leader and other team members on a celebrity tour of the West Coast for a year. A short film titled Balto's Race to Nome was made to honor the lead dog. And in December 1925, a statue of Balto was erected in New York City's Central Park. Seppala was stung that it was Balto, not Togo, who was the darling of the country. He commented: "It was almost more than I could bear when the ‘newspaper dog' Balto received a statue for his ‘glorious achievements.'"
After touring, Kaasen sold Balto and the rest of the team to a vaudeville sideshow. When a Cleveland businessman called attention to the dogs' horrible living conditions, the city's people held fundraisers to purchase them, with children donating their pennies for the cause of rescuing Balto. The dog and his companions were moved to the Cleveland Zoo, and thousands came to cheer him on his first day in retirement. Balto lived there comfortably until his death in 1933 at age 11. He was later mounted and added to the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Long after his death, he was toasted in children's books, television specials, and even in an animated feature film produced by Steve Spielberg.
About a year after the serum run, Seppala took Togo and 40 other dogs on a cross-country tour with an Alaska Native dog handler named Kingiak. They created a stir from the West Coast through the Midwest and onward to New England. During 10 days in 1929, they drew 20,000 people to New York City's Madison Square Garden.
Seppala moved to the East Coast for several years, splitting his time between Maine and Alaska, and developing another kennel of racers. He competed with his beloved sleek, lightweight Siberian huskies and enjoyed watching the aged Togo continue to beat the odds. In his book, Early Sled Dog Racing in Maine: A Frying Pan of Hot Meat Wrecked My Chances in the First Race, Seppala described how Togo, now in his teens, entered a weight-pull contest against another dog twice his size. His competitor was a large mixed-breed dog named Chinook, owned by another musher and dog breeder, Arthur Walden, who had prospected in the Yukon.
"Walden had bragged that his Chinook would break out and pull a heavier load than any dog in the country," Seppala wrote. "I had watched his dogs perform and answered with a challenge that my Togo, who weighed only 48 pounds in harness, could pull any load that Walden's Chinook could. Although neither of us smoked, we bet two cigars on the result.
"The sled was loaded with several sacks of cement onto which Walden hooked his dog. Chinook could not even start the load until Walden had kicked the runners loose from the snow. I knew that Togo could do better but felt that here was an opportunity to inject a little comedy into the act. Kingiak, my Eskimo helper, hid one of Walden's farm chickens under his parka and stepped out ahead of Togo a distance of 20 feet or so. On my command, Togo leaped to one side with his full weight straining against the collar, then another leap to the left and the sled runners were loosened. Just then Kingiak let the chicken clap his wings and Togo was upon him in a couple of jumps with a loaded sled following easily behind. Walden was a good sport and conceded that Togo had won the cigars for me."
When Togo was about 14, Seppala gave him to his Maine kennel partner, Elizabeth Ricker, trusting that Togo would live out his life in ease. He later spoke of how difficult it was to say goodbye and hit the trail without Togo for the first time in 12 years. In 1928 Seppala made Chatanika, near Fairbanks, his Alaska home, and was warmed when the American Kennel Club accepted the Siberian Husky as a registered breed in 1930. In later years he and his wife Constance would split their time between Seattle and Fairbanks.
Togo lived out his life in Maine, and Seppala visited him often. The little dog with the big heart died on December 5, 1929, at age 16, and his remains were mounted and returned to Alaska. Today he stands in a glass case at Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Headquarters in Wasilla, Alaska, where admirers can view the husky who was Nome's dog hero in the Serum Run of 1925.