Filed Under Museums

Balto vs. the Alaskan Black Death

It was a race against time to save the city of Nome from the Alaskan Black Death. The only hope for the isolated, snowbound community was the delivery of diphtheria antitoxin by dog sled relay. An unlikely, fury national hero emerged from the treacherous serum run: Balto.

With seven children dead, nineteen persons severely ill and 150 under surveillance for infection with the Alaskan Black Death, the small city of Nome, Alaska was under quarantine. Nome's sole doctor moved house to house treating the sick, while a nurse attended to infected Eskimo children. A diphtheria epidemic threatened to decimate the icebound town of 1,400, and the only serum available had expired and proved ineffective.



In a race against time to save the city, the territorial Board of Health and Governor of Alaska moved to organize a relay of the area’s best dog sledding teams to transport a batch of serum by way of a postal route through the tundra. Newspapers in Cleveland and other urban centers latched onto the story. The public was reeled in with daily accounts of disease, blizzards, frostbite and subzero temperatures. Norwegian musher Gunner Kaasan and his sled team arrived in Nome with the life saving serum on February 5, 1925 at 5:30 A.M. Having traveled over 50 miles through treacherous weather, he stumbled into the doctor’s home, handed over the medicine and returned to his dogs. The only words he spoke before collapsing from physical exhaustion commended the lead of his sled team, Balto: “Damn fine dog.”



Balto quickly became an American hero and a symbol of the 1925 serum run. The story of the relay, and specifically one dog, had resonated with the public and created a sensation. Even though the disease had predominantly affected an indigenous population in what the press characterized as an uncivilized outpost, the course of events had struck a nerve in urban society. Both public interest in the serum run and Balto's rise to fame emerged from a nation's struggle to hold on to images of an idealized early American past. The run's captivating narrative was framed to portray the age-old theme of man versus nature, and the canine was inscribed with the values of the iconic 1920s hero - loyalty, courage and strength.


The 1925 serum run unfolded as a true-life pulp serial, and was shaped as a reflection of urban societies’ values and anxieties. The nation was adjusting to a change; for the first time in the 1920s, more than half of the population lived in cities. The growth of cities was both reinforced by and encouraged mass production and consumerism. In an era characterized by economic prosperity and increased leisure time for many urban residents, a new mass culture emerged. Entertainment flourished; radios, movies, printed media and advertising campaigns could reach and influence a wider range of the public. The changing face of the American landscape tied the country together as never before. The culture and identity of the nation became both associated with and representative of urban society. Tensions mounted as a nation’s social norms faltered under the highly visible influence of consumerism and materialism.



While urbanization had always been accompanied by a yearning for an idealized rural past, what seemed to be rapid steps towards modernity necessitated that a new American identity be forged. A moral world of yesteryear was drawn from constructed memories of frontier life. The bygone era was imagined to be a simpler and primitive time, a moment in the country’s history when men negotiated their own destiny. Representations of traditional values and belief systems, which by their nature were reactionary and defined in contrast to imagined current standards, were echoed in popular culture as a means to address the perceived moral pitfalls of urbanity.

The story of the serum run was formulated within the context of these unsettling social and cultural changes. Where technology had proved useless in the harsh wilderness, men battled through the forces of nature in a desperate attempt to save Nome's most vulnerable citizens. Hearkening back to America's lost frontier, the simple, moral tale emphasized the goodness and strength of its characters. The familiar narrative broached the works of Zane Gray and Edgar Rice Burroughs.



With the successful completion of the relay, the mushers were celebrated throughout Alaska. Leonhard Seppala and Gunnar Kaasan, both of Norwegian descent, found minor celebrity in United States. The run, however, came to be identified with Balto. An unlikely hero, Balto was aptly described in the newspapers as barrel-chested and inexperienced. Paralleling a common rags-to-riches theme, the dog had been used primarily for freight delivery and was never a lead on sled racing squad. Seppala, who owned and trained Balto, had passed over the dog for his own team.

Accounts of the relay often described Balto as only being chosen as the lead dog by Kaasan amidst a blizzard, when the former leader had proved ineffective in the adverse conditions. Balto's character and personality were formulated within a pattern of the typical 1920s hero. Described as courageous, strong and faithful, Balto joined the ranks of famous adventurers, athletes and protagonists of serials. The canine hero was featured in a Hollywood film and toured through America on the vaudeville circuit.  A monument was erected of his likeness in Central Park, and the 'Balto' name was attached to books and advertisements.



The overshadowing success of Balto frustrated Leonhard Seppala, who was arguably the pivotal character in the success of the serum run. The men that had participated in the relay to save Nome, predominately either foreign born or indigenous to the area, had been relegated as background to Balto's story. Seppala believed that his lead racing dog, Togo, deserved the honors that were bestowed upon the second-rate freighting dog.



As both Kaasen's superior at the Pioneer Mining Company and the owner of Balto, Seppala ordered his subordinate back to Alaska in 1926. Balto and six teammates from the run were left in the hands of a tour promoter, who sold the dogs to a dime museum. Months later, Cleveland businessman George Kimble came across the dog team chained to a sled at the museum. Securing a price of $2,000 and two weeks to pay the museum owner, Kimble began a crusade to save the dogs. His campaign placed collection boxes throughout Cleveland in hotel lobbies, drug stores, Public Square, restaurants and cigar shops.

With the assistance of the Cleveland Plain Dealer in promoting the cause, Kimble raised over $2300.00 in 10 days.   On March 19, 1927, the seven dogs were greeted with a parade through Public Square before being taken to their new home at the Brookside Zoo. An estimated 15,000 Clevelanders visited the sled team on their first day at the zoo, where Balto and his teammates lived out the remaining years of their lives as celebrities. A bronze tablet and granite monument inscribed with their names was dedicated in 1931. Originally erected to be a roster of heroic dogs and act as a shrine for animal lovers in Cleveland, the monument would be remembered as the gravestone of the dog pack.



Struggling with impaired mobility and a weak heart, Balto was euthanized on March 14, 1933 at the age of fourteen. Even in death, Balto’s celebrity as the dog that saved Nome endured. His body was mounted and placed on display at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, where it rivaled a collection of shrunken heads as the most requested exhibit. In a nod to the Husky’s famed bravery, his thyroid and adrenal glands were preserved in George Crile's organ collection at the Cleveland Clinic.  With the pieces-parts of Balto’s corpse eternalized in Cleveland, public memory of the dog continued to be shaped nationally through books and film into the 21st century. Building off of the narrative created by the 1920s press, posthumous characterizations of the canine persisted in attributing the success of the Serum Run to his valor. The legend of Balto would withstand the test of time. The anthropomorphized hero acted as a furry reminder of an idealized pioneer past– a time when man, unaided by technology, battled against the forces of nature for survival and the advancement of civilization.

Audio

Balto finds a new home Harvey Webster of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History tells the story of Balto's journey to Cleveland. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection

Images

Nome, Alaska in 1916 Nome, Alaska was founded in 1901 following the discovery of gold in the region. Developed as a mining district after gold deposits were uncovered in 1898, the town quickly grew to over 10,000 and became the largest city in the U.S. territory. By the time of the serum run, the city's population had dwindled to under a thousand persons. Source: Library of Congress
Birdseye View of Nome The story of the serum run began on January 20, 1925. A child in Nome was diagnosed with diphtheria. What was initially thought to be a rash of tonsillitis exposed itself as a deadly and highly contagious disease. Three Inuit children in a nearby village had already died undiagnosed. A radio telegram was sent from Nome in a desperate search for the needed serum. The town's only supply of anti-toxin was seven years old, and the attending doctor feared that its use would exacerbate the illness. The following day, the boy in Nome died and another child was found to have contracted diphtheria; although treated with the expired antitoxin, she died later in the day. An emergency town council meeting was held, during which a city-wide quarantine was instituted. The doctor needed one million units of the serum to combat an epidemic. Image from Library of Congress
Remote Terrain, 1920 On January 22, 1925, telegrams were sent from the remote city to all major towns in Alaska and the U.S. Public Health Service in Washington D.C. As the search for serum continued, the outbreak progressed. Two more children died, and twenty additional cases of the disease were confirmed. By January 26, the U.S. Public Health Service had acquired the needed antitoxin in hospitals along the West Coast. Transportation of the medicine to Nome, however, would take at least two weeks. A small batch of the serum was also located at the Anchorage Railroad Hospital. The 300,000 units would only treat about thirty persons, but might stave off the outbreak until a larger supply could arrived. Image from Library of Congress
Iditarod Trail Once the much-needed antitoxin had been located, its transport to the middle of nowhere raised a new pressing problem. Winter storms had isolated the icebound town of Nome; the use of planes with open cockpits and water-cooled engines could prove disastrous in such conditions. The only way to transport the serum safely was by sled team. The nearest city with railroad access was over 650 miles from Nome, and would be the starting point of the overland trek. A relay of over twenty dog sledding teams was organized to rush the serum to the stricken outpost. Spread along the postal route, the teams were headed by the region's best mushers. Image from Library of Congress
Sled Team As the race to save Nome began on January 27, two storm systems began pushing their way through Alaska. Temperatures were dangerously low, while blizzards crippled transportation and brought life to a standstill throughout the U.S. territory. As the first driver of the relay left the train station with the serum, Leonhard Seppala - the area's best known dog sled racer and breeder - was on his way from Nome to safeguard the package through the most dangerous leg of the journey. Image from Library of Congress
Front Page News, 1925 By January 29, 1925, the story of Nome's pending fate was front-page news in Cleveland and other cities. While the time-sensitive nature of the crisis lent itself to daily updates, a lack of communications from the storm-bound region left room for imagination and occasional embellishment by writers. At the core of the drama was an understanding of the disastrous effects of contagious diseases. Americans were no stranger to the ravages of epidemics; with the return of United States soldiers following the Great War, transmittable diseases such as tuberculosis and typhoid fever flourished in the increasingly urbanized nation. Most significantly, the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 killed over 675,000 Americans, and infected over a quarter of the nation's populace. The American public witnessed the consequences of epidemics only recently, and there was no question as to the urgency of the situation in Nome. Cleveland Plain Dealer
A Hostile Environment As the relay progressed, newspapers provided their readership accounts of heroism and adventure. The relay teams faced whiteout conditions as they traveled through blizzards in temperatures well below negative 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Mushers finished stretches of the run with faces and hands blackened from frostbite, and newspapers reported the death of multiple dogs. Seppala, in a risky bid to save time, diverged from the shoreline to travel across the Norton Sound; thirty Eskimo runners lined the riverside waiting for a glance of his team in order to alert the next musher of the hand-off location. Just three hours after Seppala's passage across the frozen river, storms disrupted the waters and broke through the ice. All the while, the count of infected residents slowly rose. As the relay reached its last stretches, weather conditions had worsened to the point that officials ordered the run halted. Fearing the storm would only worsen, Gunnar Kaasan decided to proceed with his leg of the journey. Having overrun his hand-off point by two miles due to poor visibility, the musher continued forward. When reaching the final stop before Nome ahead of schedule, Kaasan found the final team's musher asleep and his dogs unprepared to complete the last 25-mile stretch of the run. After a short rest to warm the serum, Kaasan - led by Balto - completed the final stretch of the relay. The 674-mile relay to save the city was finished in record time, 127 hours and 30 minutes. Image from Library of Congress
Balto, 1925 Raised in Leonhard Seppala's kennel in Nome, Balto did not meet the trainer's physical standards for racing-team dogs. Subsequently, Balto was primarily used to transport freight. The "newspaper" dog's rise to fame infuriated Seppala, who believed that Balto was unfairly credited for the achievements of his team's leader, Togo. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.
Balto in Seattle, 1925 In March of 1925, Balto was presented with a bone shaped key to the City of Seattle by the Boy Scouts and the Alaska-Yukon Pioneer Society. The children of Grace Quakenbush, owner of the Olympic Hotel, acted as the dog's escorts for the commemoration. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.
Balto's Rise to Fame, 1925 Following the successful serum relay, a Hollywood producer quickly contacted Leonhard Seppala to capitalize on Balto's celebrity. With six additional dogs from the sled team, the dogs were featured in a movie and sent on a promotional tour across the United States. Advertisements
Balto Monument in Central Park, 1925 The bronze statue of Balto in New York's Central Park was dedicated on December 17th, 1925. It was the first public monument to commemorate the efforts of the sled team and their role in saving the city of Nome. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.
Gunnar and Anna Kaasen, 1925 Gunnar Kaasen accompanied the dog sled team on both the promotional and vaudeville tours that followed their rise to fame. Dominating the media spotlight as heroes of the serum run, Balto and Gunnar's new-found celebrity provoked the resentment of mushers who participated in the relay. Still an employee of the Pioneer Mining Company, Gunnar was eventually pushed into returning to Alaska in 1926 by a disgruntled superior - Leonhard Seppala. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.
Revised History, 1928 Within a year of the serum run, public memory of events had become somewhat clouded; the story of Balto overshadowed the details of the relay. This advertisement credits Balto for completing the entire run, and names Leonhard Seppala as his musher. Advertisement
Save Balto Campaign, 1927 To raise the necessary funds to save Balto and his teammates from a life as museum showpieces, George Kimble's campaign placed collection boxes throughout Cleveland in hotel lobbies, drug stores, the public square, restaurants, and cigar shops. Within ten days, over $2300.00 was collected. On March 19, 1927, the seven dogs were greeted with a parade through public square before being taken to their new home at the Brookside Zoo. An estimated 15,000 Clevelanders visited the sled team on their first day at the zoo. Advertisement
Sled Team at the Cleveland Zoo Following George Kimble's campaign to bring Balto and six of his teammates to Cleveland, the seven dogs lived out the remainder of their lives as celebrities at the city zoo. A bronze tablet and granite monument inscribed with their names was dedicated in 1931. Originally erected to be a roster of heroic dogs and act as a shrine for animal lovers in Cleveland, the monument would eventually be remembered as the gravestone of the dog pack. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.
Balto Examined By Dr. Brinker, 1933 Struggling with impaired mobility and a weak heart, Balto was euthanized on March 14, 1933 at the age of fourteen. Even in death, Balto retained his celebrity. The body was mounted and placed on display at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, where it rivaled a collection of shrunken heads for being the most requested exhibit. The famous canine's thyroid and adrenal glands were also preserved in George Crile's organ collection at the Cleveland Clinic. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.
Balto and Togo With the renovation of the wolf exhibit at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo in 1997, statues of Balto and Togo were donated to commemorate the zoo's prior occupants. Image courtesy of the Cleveland Metropark Zoo

Location

Metadata

baltostruestory.net
Richard Raponi, “Balto vs. the Alaskan Black Death,” Cleveland Historical, accessed May 19, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/610.