Great Land History: Nome, Alaska: A 1925 Mission of Mercy

“Nome Calling: No Serum, Urgently Need Help”

It has been a long while since I posted a Great Land History post, and when I went looking for a previous one on Nome and the 1925 Serum Run, it was nowhere to be found. Fortunately, its original publication post elsewhere  in 2014 (reverted to draft form) remained in digital storage, from where I copied to here, with a few image changes.


Nome, 1916. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Nome in 1925 was a city recently emerged from a gold rush in which its population had swelled by about 20,000 following discoveries along a prehistoric beach line on the Bering Sea. Now, with just under 1,000 Europeans and 450 Natives, it still remained the largest city in Alaska and was a hub for medical aid and supplies utilized by those from villages along Norton Sound and the Bering. Before the freezeover each year it also served as a shipping point in what Ungermann in The Race to Nome refers to as “trackless northwestern Alaska.”

Inhabitants of this region in fact did know of natural trails where they existed and broke new ones each year as they made their way to and from destinations in the course of their lives and business. The mail run from Nenana, in Alaska’s Interior, to Nome took about thirty days by dog sled. Mushers also worked with the sled dogs on trap lines, hauling in moose and caribou and performing medical runs. Dog teams were such an integral part of survival in the area, and there were so many that Nome city ordinance required bells to alert pedestrians of sleds.


Nome is located on the southern portion of the Seward Peninsula, itself jutting out of Alaska’s northwest into the Norton Sound. Image public domain, retrieved from Wikimedia Commons, For larger view, click here. 

It was here that Dr. Curtis Welch, an 1897 Yale graduate and promising physician from California, had arrived in Nome along with a good many other doctors. With the end of gold, so too were the doctors, who departed the northland in great numbers after the final payday. Welch had stayed on for his love of the land and its social customs, and along with his wife, a registered nurse, he dedicated his life to the people of Nome and outlying areas.

Now, on this January day years after the boom, Dr. Welch visited the home of two children who had been sick for three days. Owing to their sore throats their mother had thought they had bad colds, but when the doctor tried to examine them, the children couldn’t even open their mouths wide enough for him to see. Several days later he was able to examine another ailing child and found what he had suspected, feared and tried to dismiss. In Nome he didn’t have access to a laboratory to send specimens, but now the evidence was plain to see: diphtheria patches, stark and unmistakable.

The unimaginable dilemma Welch faced was that his on-hand supply of anti-toxin was not nearly enough, for diphtheria spreads with devastating speed. The serum was also five years old, and he feared what he had would not be effective. He had ordered new stock the previous summer, but none had yet arrived. With the port frozen over, shipping was out of the question and then, as it remains today, there is no road in or out of Nome. With the location of a batch of serum in Anchorage, a new question arose to plague the doctor: How to get it to Nome? While flight had been utilized in the Great Land, it was a summer occupation, given the open-air cockpits of the time.

While a Fairbanks faction lobbied to have their airplanes part of the rescue effort – they argued their case of machinery and greater speed – it, too, had to concede that industry is still sometimes inferior to traditional methods. Weather conditions exceeding negative 60 degrees Fahrenheit in testing had damaged parts, and engine oil congealed in the cold. In the end the necessary choice became the strength, endurance, intelligence and loyalty of the sled dog.

Sled dogs
Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

From the time Welch’s radio call went out on January 25 – “Nome calling…We have an outbreak of diphtheria…No serum…Urgently need help” – mushers met to organize the best drivers and teams, and set up a relay system with checkpoints at which the anti-toxin could be passed on, each one bringing the precious serum closer to the stricken city. The serum’s race to Nome began in a cylindrical container packed onto a train from Anchorage to Nenana where Wild Bill Shannon would pick up the first lap of the sled dog legs. His nine malamutes at some points carried on at a trot in order to keep from scorching their lungs with the frozen air. Shannon could tell by a particular pinch in his nose with inhalation when they were entering a cold pocket of air, and the current negative 50 degrees conditions were already to be met with caution.

While Shannon’s leg of the race proceeded fairly smoothly, the entire journey was to present a saga worthy of re-telling many millions of times over, and indeed it has been. As it unfolded, however, Nome’s predicament captured the attention of those in the United States, and they too were mesmerized. Alaskans were once again engaging in creative problem solving, to say the least – though sled dogs were commonly engaged, the precious cargo made the journey fraught with anxiety and fear. The Anchorage doctor had specially wrapped the package and sent along specific instructions for it to be warmed at each checkpoint. What if it froze? God forbid it be lost. An injury on the trail could result in a musher freezing to death – what would happen to Nome if the vital medicine never made it there? Each musher in turn attempted to keep the nightmarish possibilities at bay by banishing these thoughts from their minds, urging their dogs on and keeping an eye out for their needs along the way.

It was not long, however, before a too-large dose of reality intercepted their plans. The epidemic had spread in Nome and claimed four more lives. Fifteen more people had also become ill. The grave news for the mushers when they heard it spurred them on, with dogs who could sense urgency in their masters’ voices and who, it cannot be forgotten, pushed themselves to limits most people would consider unimaginable. Armed, however, with a combination of keen intuition – that warned them of cracking ice, for instance – and courageous drive, they continued their legs along a trail stretching across nearly 700 miles of rugged Alaska, the sort of terrain those Outside often romanticize but subsequently dismiss as unreal given its extremity.


Map of the historical and current Iditarod trails, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Newspaper outlets of the day did the same, capitalizing on the event with hyperbole wholly unnecessary in light of the bare facts. Ungermann wonders how many of the agencies’ readers “could run thirty to fifty miles at subzero temperatures over a desolate frozen trail without stopping? How many of them would wade into a melee of snarling, snapping, part-wolf dogs to stop a fight and straighten [a] tangled harness?”  Indeed, how many of them, or those who wrote the articles for that matter, how many could balance the duties toward animals whose capacities made this journey even possible, yet relied on the mushers for their well being? As it was determined the relays’ distances would be shorter for greater speed, dog and master needed each other equally, and Nome desperately needed them both.

Early on in his young adult account of the serum race, Ungermann points out the danger of treating or perceiving sled dogs as pets. They weren’t comparable to fully domesticated dogs who play with boys and balls – these were creatures adapted to and simultaneously in need of the wild land they lived in. Sedentary lifestyles were (and remain today) anathema; the need for activity is hardwired in them. Moreover, their distinct personalities interacted within their own communities and the humans they teamed with in a variety of ways: they might clash with other dogs or prove to be capable leaders and models for the rest of their packs. Togo, for example, one of the more well-known of these serum race dogs, preferred to run in a straight line. Leonhard Seppala, his Norwegian-born musher, strained to keep his favorite dog on course, to no avail. Togo would run up precipitous banks and across pack ice as opposed to the trail, yet he always seemed to know when certain topographic points were to be avoided.

By the time the precious cargo reached Seppala’s hands, it was already almost a lucky twist it had. His job was to rendezvous with Henry Ivanoff near Shaktoolik. Ivanoff, who had collected the serum from Myles Gonangnan, proceeded on the way to meet Seppala as the two drove toward each other. However, Ivanoff’s dogs scented reindeer and broke away in search of the herd. The dogs’ drive up against Ivanoff’s sled brake caused frustration amongst the pack, resulting in a fight. As Ivanoff waded in to break up and untangle, he spotted Seppala driving by and waved to him. The Norwegian, unaware of the serum transfer and believing he was to carry on to where Ivanoff had left Gonangnan, waved back and continued on.

The wind carried Ivanoff’s words away as he attempted to capture Seppala’s attention. The dogs could see Shaktoolik now, which to them meant food and rest, and their drive and determination to reach their goal increased. Seppala, too, was looking forward to the rest, given his unawareness – a result of being out of telephone contact – of the change to relay distances, and belief that he still had another 140 miles to go before collecting the serum and turning right back around for Nome. The wind had been at his back on the way; going back to the beleaguered coastal city would be even tougher. Seppala strained to hear; was that a crucial word on the wind? He finally managed to hear it again and yes, it was what he thought he had heard. Ivanoff had shouted again, “Serum – turn back!”

Seppala and his team had run many a race in their time; the musher was famed for his speed and endurance. He relied on his team, in particular Togo, to get them safely through and this time not only would be no exception, but was also more important than any race they had ever run. Up against them was yet another dilemma: to drive straight across 20 miles of open ice as the shortest path to Nome, or farther inland along the coast. The latter was the safest, but also cost more in time, a fee Seppala could not afford. People were dying, some were already lost, and an epidemic was raging across a city of people under quarantine, people whose greatest support had always been each other. Now their foundation was a mortal danger, owing to the ease of transmission amongst close contact.

The wind had reached gale velocity and the driving snow was blinding. Seppala fully realised the awful danger inherent in the northeast gale. The ice of the bay could break up at any moment and be blown out to sea. In this dark, wind-filled world, he might not see or hear the open channels forming from the crumbling ice in time to avoid being trapped. He was familiar with the horrifying prospects of that possibility: drowning, freezing, or if he were very fortunate, being stranded on floating ice that later might be swept against shore ice.

Seppala thought of his daughter, Seigrid, who had contracted diphtheria and recovered. He considered his friends and their children waiting for what he carried, and quickly made his decision. “He would take the short route to Isaac’s Point and trust in God and the speed of his dogs to get him across before the ice went out.” Reaching the dwelling where he had spent the previous night, Seppala fed his team, warmed the serum and tried to wait out the storm. He rested a bit, but in his anxiety he could sit no more and started again to Nome. His trail of the previous day contained open water; the ice had broken up and gone out to sea.

Though not according to the plan set out for schedule of relays, Gunnar Kaasen picked up the last leg of the race, an element sadly later to be the subject of bitter disputes and accusations regarding the musher’s intentions. Kaasen, however, had his own demons on the journey, for when he reached Solomon a gust of wind – Alaskan sized to match the land: huge – flipped the sled, emptied it of its contents and tangled the team in a gnarling mess. Kaasen panicked. Feeling around for the most important item, what he feared was so horrifying a prospect it made him physically ill. Tearing off his gloves in the frozen dark, he tried to feel around the area where the sled overturned, until he finally, filled with gratitude, lifted the package from the snow and continued on his way to Nome.

The Iditarod Sled Dog race commemorates the great race to Nome, a mission of mercy carried out by courageous men and sled dogs to come to the aid of those in distress. As race finishers do today, Kaasen came in on Front Street to claim a victory for Nome, the serum delivery and defeat of raging diptheria. By February 2 inoculations had begun and the epidemic was broken. On February 21 the city’s quarantine was lifted and life began to return to normal – except for a few small changes. In less than six days 20 mushers and nearly 200 dogs accomplished what the mail run generally took five times that to achieve. This could not be forgotten, and indeed it was not. People across the world sent letters, poems and pictures. When it was later discovered that some of the sled dogs (who had been sold) were being treated cruelly, a group of Cleveland schoolchildren raised $2,000.00 to buy their freedom. The race also contributed to more widespread inoculation, and airmail routes, following improvement in technology, were established in Alaska. Today air routes are so frequently trafficked Alaska is referred to as “the flyingest state.” 

Alaskans still talk of the great serum race, ever grateful to the men and dogs, as well as all those who assisted without receiving any sort of attention or praise. Though I told much of this from memory, I also used three sources for other details, one of which is a long standing favorite: Kenneth A. Ungermann’s The Race to Nome

Two others continue to tell the story for future generations with stunning artwork and magnificent text:


There are perhaps hundreds of books about the people and places surrounding the events that occurred in that frightful month in 1925. Posters, paintings, poetry and other art forms commemorate the run and one of its most famous participants, Balto. 

800px-BaltoBalto statue in New York City’s Central Park West. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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