The room was dank and the air foul. The cabin itself nothing more than flotsam, driftwood, and wooden boards thrown together like so many others prospectors had built on the Sand Spit outside of Nome, Alaska, during its gold rush.
Two Inupiat Eskimo boys were dying and white-haired Dr. Curtis Welch did not know why. Since practicing in Nome in 1906 to this very day—Jan. 21, 1925—he had never seen another case or anything like it. While searching his medical books, he was called to the home of a prominent white Nome family. Their son also had fallen ill. He had the same high fever and shallow breathing the two other boys had. But there was something more here. Welch found membrane covering the interior of the boy's mouth—the telltale sign of diphtheria.
Within hours all three boys were dead, and Welch requested a secret meeting with Nome's Mayor George Maynard. Welch told Maynard he had only 75,000 units of antitoxin that was five years old. He needed at least 30,000 units for each patient.
Nome was iced in for the winter. No ships could get through. With temperatures at or below minus-40 degrees, if they tried to have serum flown in, the pilots of the open-air cockpits of the era would be overcome with the cold and crash, not only dying, but also losing the antitoxin.
The trail to Nenana, where the railroad was located, was 674 miles to the east, and such a trip usually took 30 days by dog team. Worse, said Welch, from the time the serum was exposed to the intense cold, it had only 144 hours before that extreme cold would render the antitoxin dormant.
Alaskan Territorial Gov. Scott Bone
began a nationwide search for enough antitoxin, but he warned Nome it would probably not reach them in time. Ten days after the initial deaths, Welch and his two nurses had five deaths, 22 cases, 30 suspected illnesses, and 50 people exposed to the plague. The 25-bed hospital was becoming overwhelmed.
Then, Nome caught a break. Dr. J.B. Beeson of the Alaska Railroad Hospital in Anchorage found 300,000 units forgotten in a supply room. He wrapped them in glass vials, blanketed them in padded quilts, and placed them in a metal cylinder. The package weighed 20 pounds. The serum was put on a special train racing over the towering Alaska Range for the interior town of Nenana.
The Northern Commercial Co., which held the mail contract to Nome, organized dog mushers as relay teams, and the men were told they had to cut the time on the trail down to 15 days if they could.
Mayor Maynard was not taking any chances. Nome had Alaska's premier musher, 48-year-old Leonhard Seppala, who was the three-time winner of the All-Alaska Sweepstakes races. The short-statured Seppala was also a wrestling champion who had gained fame in 1917 for rescuing Bobby Brown, a musher whose leg had been mangled in an accident. Seppala and his lead dog, Togo, raced 62 miles to get Brown to a doctor before he bled to death. Now Seppala's daughter, Seigrid, had come down with diphtheria.
But no man had ever done what Maynard was asking of him: race to the Yukon River to intercept the mail mushers and bring the serum back; he would have to cover 300 miles as a blizzard approached, and do it alone.
Seppala would take Togo and 20 other dogs. One dog he did not take was a Lapphund named Balto, believing the dog did not have the stamina for the run. A young Gunnar Kaasen, employed at a local gold mine at the time, tried to persuade Seppala otherwise, pointing out that Balto had been one of the canines used for pulling the Pupmobile, a 90-mile-long train powered by dogs. But Seppala didn’t budge.
Gov. Bone was concerned about who would be the first musher to take the serum from the train. He sent a wire to “the law” in Nenana to pick the best. Always in a dress, sometimes with a holster strapped over it, small and frail Clara Heid was the law in Nenana. No one knew where she had come from. She had simply shown up in Nenana in 1923 after being appointed the U.S. commissioner for the town. She had an ideal candidate in mind, whom she knew from breaking up his ritual brawls with railroad workers. All she had to do was persuade the governor's man in charge of the relay, Ed Wetzler, to use Wild Bill Shannon.
Alaskans don't give just anyone a nickname like “Wild Bill.” With a lone trap line along the Stampede Trail near Mount McKinley, Shannon possessed temper, wit, and—as a musher—audacity. As the train pulled into the Nenana depot at 11 p.m. on Jan. 27, the temperature read 40-below. Above the town on a bluff were 46 small white crosses marking the graves of Athabascan Indians who had died six years earlier during an influenza outbreak.
Wetzler was unloading the serum when a monster of muscle dressed in skins and hides walked up to him to take it. Carefully, Shannon listened to the special instructions for protecting the serum; then Wetzler suggested he might wait until dawn before striking out. “Hell, Wetz,” Wild Bill growled. “If people are dying let’s get started.” He tied the serum to his nine-dog sled, snapped his whip in the air, and raced off down the frozen Tanana River. The nighttime temperature would get down to minus-62. The race to Nome was on.
Covering 52 miles by 5:30 a.m., Wild Bill reached Tolovana. Blood was dripping from the mouths of two of his dogs; two others would die later from frozen lungs. Wild Bill, who suffered severe frost bite to the face during the journey, handed the serum to Edgar Kallands, who raced for Manley Hot Springs, 31 miles further west. Before Kallands left, he told Wild Bill more children had died in Nome.
The deaths of more children unnerved Nome. Frightened parents lined the street to watch as Alaska's greatest musher took off for the Yukon River just as a blizzard was headed for Nome. Seppala had a 300-mile run without rest ahead of him, but the lives of his daughter and the city’s children depended on the endurance of this lone musher and his dogs.
Ahead, Dan Green had to pour boiling water over Kallands’ gloves to free them from his sled; then Green embarked on his own 28-mile run to Fish Lake. From there, Johnny Folger covered 26 miles to Tanana. Sam Joseph made the 34 miles to Kallands, a settlement named for musher Edgar Kallands’ family. Titus Nicolai went from there to Nine Mile Cabin. Dave Corning covered the next 30 miles to Kokrines. Harry Pitka mushed across another 30 miles to the river port of Ruby.
For 28 miles, Bill McCarty fought off the blizzard to reach Whiskey Creek. As he pulled into town he saw a crowd had gathered. A woman stepped forth and kissed him, crying, “God bless you.” Edgar Nollner took the serum for 24 miles into Galena, where his brother George continued on for 18 miles to Bishop Mountain. The temperature was minus-64 when Charlie Evans slid into Nulato after covering the 30 miles out of Bishop. Two of his dogs fell dead from exhaustion.
Tommy Patsy continued on for Kal-tag, 36 miles downriver, where a mysterious riverboat captain going by the name Jackscrew had volunteered to take the serum overland from Kaltag. A lantern was lit so Jackscrew could find the Old Woman shelter cabin where he found Victor Anagick, who pushed on to the Bering Sea village of Unalakleet after receiving the serum.
From Unalakleet, Myles Gonangnan struggled through the blizzard for 40 miles before reaching Shaktoolik. Henry Ivanoff was just leaving Shaktoolik with the serum when his dogs caught the scent of reindeer and became tangled in their harnesses. He was settling them down when a lone figure came toward him in the blowing snow. It was Seppala!
He had already covered 43 miles of coastline after resting briefly in a sod igloo on the west shore of Norton Sound. As he took the serum from Ivanoff, Seppala faced 91 miles to the nearest shelter at Golovin—right into the teeth of the storm. Behind him Mayor Maynard had set up a second relay of mushers from the mining employees. One of them, Kaasen, had taken Balto with him as his lead dog. It meant Seppala did not have to go all the way back to Nome.
But Seppala realized that he and the relay teams had lost valuable time. Soon the serum would go inert from the cold. He stopped where the trail came to the beach and stared out over the ice-choked Bering Sea. Storm surges were beginning to break up the ice pack, but if he could cross it, he could make up lost time. If he fell through the ice, the lives of his daughter and the other children would be lost, Seppala knew. Yet if the time was not made up somehow, they would all perish anyway. He headed out over the frozen sea.
Howling winds buffed Seppala’s team sideways. Beneath him he could hear the moaning and popping of ice. He estimated he was halfway across Norton Sound when the world around him became a whiteout, blinding his vision. But Togo fearlessly charged forward at full speed. Now and then, when a fissure yawned open or the ice around him dropped into a crevasse, Seppala would snap his head toward the sounds, blindly trying to make out features with bloodshot eyes, standing on the back of the sled. His entire body struggled against fatigue.
Crossing 86 miles of pack ice, Seppala and Togo made it to shore at 8 p.m. Nearby was the sod igloo he had sheltered in before. The Eskimo family took him in and gave his dogs food and shelter as he fell into a deep sleep. When Seppala awoke the next morning, the ice pack had been taken out to sea. He rushed on to Dexter's Roadhouse, where Charlie Olson took the serum and raced 25 miles to Bluff, only 78 miles from Nome. From there, Gunnar Kaasan and Balto took the serum on to Port Safety.
The blizzard was now striking with all its fury. Mayor Maynard ordered all mushers to stand down, but Kaasen had already left. At one point, Balto stopped and would not move. Kaasen discovered there was open water ahead of the team and he circled his team around it. Balto had saved them.
Nearing Port Safety the wind blew the team into a snow bank. For a while the serum was lost, but Kaasen was able to dig it out of the snowdrift. On the final leg, Kaasen was to give the serum to Ed Rohn, but Rohn had gone to sleep after getting the order to stand down. Seeing no lights on, Kaasen decided to race on, but soon went snow-blind. Balto could lead the team only by instinct.
At 5:30 a.m. Monday, Feb. 2, Dr. Welch heard a pounding on the hospital door. It was Kaasen. Welch carefully thawed the frozen serum and administered it to a patient. It worked.
The serum had arrived in Nome with only 12 hours to spare. Each musher was paid $18.66 plus a $25-a-day trail bonus from the Alaska territorial government. Kaasen received another $1,000 from Nome’s mining company. Four of the mushers would die within two years along the very same route delivering the U.S. mail (mail was delivered by dog teams until they were replaced by air
delivery in 1937).
A few years later, the body of Wild Bill was found mauled by a bear. Clara Heid served as the law in Nenana for 23 years, before she abruptly left without forewarning in 1948 at age 65. She left no forwarding address. Eight-year-old Seigrid Seppala survived the epidemic of 1925. Her father never raced again. Leonhard Seppala died in 1967, his ashes scattered across the Iditarod Trail.
Mike Coppock is a freelance writer from Enid, Okla. He teaches in Tuluksak, Alaska.