An Uncommon Hero
An enduring tale of courage and selflessness

This is a story of uncommon resilience in the face of almost certain defeat. It is the story of perseverance through setback after setback. It is the story of the pain and suffering of a few for the greater good of a majority. It’s stranger than fiction, but it’s also completely true. And it all revolves around an infection, a group of men and … a dog. This story includes many dogs, in fact, but one stands out from the rest in particular. His name was Balto.

Let’s start at the beginning.

The story starts in a place called Nome. Nome is a small town located in Western Alaska. It is remote and only about 140 miles from the Arctic Circle—quite cut off from the rest of the world. During late 1924 and early 1925, Nome’s isolation was a matter of life and death for the people living in the small town.

In December 1924, a little Inuit toddler living in a town near Nome started displaying symptoms of diphtheria, which is a throat infection that creates a thick, gray membrane at the back of the throat and makes breathing really hard. It can quickly lead to suffocation. Nome’s only doctor, Curtis Welch, misdiagnosed the small boy as having tonsillitis, which is the swelling of the tonsils at the back of the throat. Both infections are bad, but Dr. Welch’s mistake was fatal because diphtheria is much rarer and more deadly. It is harder to treat. It is also very contagious, and Dr. Welch made the mistake of assuming the infection was not diphtheria because the boy’s family members weren’t displaying any of the same symptoms.

When the child died the next morning, Dr. Welch was shocked. A few days later, another small child died from the same symptoms.

More and more children began to complain of sore throats, and it looked like more and more of them had the same illness. This wasn’t just tonsillitis, though—it was spreading too rapidly for that. As the cases kept rolling in, Dr. Welch knew he had an impending crisis on his hands. He was forced to diagnose the first official diphtheria case with a 3-year-old boy named Bill. Bill died the next day.

The only thing that could save the children was diphtheria antitoxin. But, to make the situation worse, the town’s supply of the antitoxin had expired in 1918, and what was left of it—even if it had been in date—was simply not enough. Dr. Welch needed more—a lot more—and fast! He sent dozens of telegrams pleading for the delivery of the antitoxin, but the closest supply of it was located 975 miles away in Anchorage. To make matters worse, a huge snow storm blasted Alaska, making it nearly impossible to transport the antitoxin.

Delivery by plane was out of the question—the engines would freeze before they could get anywhere. Sea ice made using a ship impossible, and the train could only get to a certain point before it ran out of track. After considering every possible alternative, an option was presented that seemed absolutely crazy: Send the serum 975 miles across barren Alaska by dogsled.

It seemed crazy, but everyone involved quickly realized that this was the only option that had any possibility of working. The lives of an entire town were in the hands of a few men and their dogs.

The antitoxin was transported from Anchorage to Nenana by train, but that was as far as the train could go. The rest of the journey—all 674 miles of it—would have to be made by dogsled.

20 of the best dogsledding teams were chosen and lined up as quickly as possible in a succession of towns from Nenana to Nome.

The first dogsled team—nine dogs driven by a man named William Shannon—took off on Jan. 27, 1925. The temperature was -50 degrees Fahrenheit. During the first leg of the journey, the temperature fell to about -62 degrees Fahrenheit. At one point, Shannon had to take a detour because the chunks of ice on the path he was traveling could have easily torn up the dogs’ paw pads. By the time the team finally reached the town where they would hand off the antitoxin, sections of the Shannon’s face had turned black from frostbite, and at least two of his nine dogs had died from the cold.

The story is similar for each of the teams. The temperatures dropped lower and lower—into the -60’s and -70’s Fahrenheit. Violent blizzards brought gale force winds that reached up to 80 miles per hour. Dogs continued to drop from the cold. Almost every driver suffered some sort of frostbite. Edgar Kallands, the man who took over for Shannon, actually had to have hot water poured over his hands in order to pry them loose from the handlebar of his sled.

Meanwhile, the cases of diphtheria in Nome continued to rise, and the antitoxin was needed more than ever. By this time, the crisis had become headline news in many major cities in the United States, and countless people awaited the news of this life-and-death situation that depended on a few brave men and their dogs. They would not give up—no matter the obstacles they encountered.

After 17 of the 20 teams had completed their portions of the journey, the antitoxin was handed off to Gunnar Kaasen’s team—the team where we finally get back to Balto. Balto, a black Siberian husky, was the lead dog for this team. He was bred to be a working dog, and he had spent most of his life to this point in the mines. During the mad rush to assemble a team for transporting the antitoxin, however, Balto was chosen and trained to lead a dogsled.

When Balto’s team took off with the antitoxin, the weather was at its worst—a storm was raging and the temperature was -85 degrees Fahrenheit. Throughout their journey, Kaasen had to completely trust where Balto was leading the sled. Visibility was so obscured by snow and wind that Kaasen could only see the dogs harnessed closest to the sled. Sometimes he could see nothing at all.

The visibility was so bad that Balto actually took the sled right past the town where they were supposed to pass the antitoxin off to the next team. Instead of turning back, however, Kaasen allowed Balto to keep driving the sled forward. They drove straight through the night.

Balto’s team reached the next town at 3 a.m. on February 2. Upon their arrival, however, Kaasen found the final driver fast asleep. Rather than wake him up and wait for him to get ready, Kaasen decided to take the serum the last 25 miles to Nome with his own team. Balto and the other dogs he led would be the ones who made the final race against the clock—the ones on whom the fate of an entire town now rested.

They delivered. Balto led the team the last 25 miles through near whiteout conditions—right into the main street of Nome at 5:30 a.m. As the team came to a final, successful stop, Kaasen staggered to the front of the team, expressed his admiration for Balto, and then collapsed from exhaustion right next to him.

The “Great Race of Mercy,” as the 674-mile dogsled run from Nenana to Nome was called, was accomplished in 5 days and 7 hours. 5 days of complete agony was worth it to these men—if it meant that they could save the children of Nome.

The men who made these dogsled runs did so with no thought to themselves. Their own comfort was of no concern to them. It would have been much easier for them to just forget about what was going on in Nome—they didn’t know any of those dying children personally anyway. But when they heard that people were suffering and dying, they put those complete strangers above themselves. These men were completely selfless. And their dogs—especially Balto—worked hard too.

Both Kaasen and Balto were present in Central Park on Dec. 17, 1925, when a statue of Balto was dedicated to the memory of the men and dogs who saved the town of Nome. The statue still stands today—a monument to this enduring tale of courage and selflessness.