How A Team Of Dogs Saved The Lives Of A Small Town In Alaska

Mira Ivanis, Writer/Contributor

You’ve probably heard about or seen the movie Balto. It’s your classic underdog–pun intended–story; in it, Balto is a half wolf half dog who attempts to save the life of a young girl who is sickened by diphtheria, so he joins a race against other dogs but is ultimately not included because he’s a part dog–part wolf. But the true story that this movie was based on was much more complex. 

In January of 1925, cases in Nome, Alaska, began to pile in with deadly diphtheria, but the antitoxin they needed to treat the sick was more than 500 miles away in Anchorage. Because of Alaska’s intense temperatures and heavy ice, it was hard for planes or trains to transport the medicine. So, the people turned to their next option; the Iditarod Trail, which was 650 miles, led a path straight through the wild and to their location. So who would venture on this dangerous mission through the unknown?

Mushers and their sled teams. 

Twenty volunteered for the “Great Race of Mercy.” One of the mushers, Leonhard Seppala, had high hopes for his team, their leader Togo and a young Balto. In the real story, all dogs on his team were huskies imported from Siberia.

Togo (dog) - Wikipedia
Leonhard Seppala and his loyal team. Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The serum first arrived on Nenana on January 27th. From there, teams switched off and passed the medicine for about 52 miles. Finally, Seppala’s crew got a hold of the medicine, carrying it for 127.5 hours in five days. 

Balto: The True Story of the Child-Saving Alaskan Super Dog
Balto. Photo Courtesy of Free Range American.
Togo: Siberian Husky & Sled Dog Hero Of The 1925 Nome Serum Run
Togo. Photo Courtesy of American Kennel Club.

So there were two heroes in this story. Togo, Seppala’s most experienced dog, was the leader of the team.

Balto helped lead the team in the final sprint.

Statues stand in honor of these dogs; for Togo, his was placed in Poland Springs, outside the Main State building. As for Balto, his statue is placed in New York’s prized Central Park, and he has a special tribute in the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. 

In honor of their journey, every year, a special race called the Iditarod takes place in which dogs and people from all over the world compete, racing along the journey taken by the other men from before. 

The American Kennel Club writes, “Balto…became the symbol of it all–of teamwork, courage, tenacity, and hope when there seems to be no reason for it.”