On 21 January, 1925, Dr Curtis Welch of Nome, Alaska, had diagnosed several cases of diphtheria and some of the town’s children had already succumbed to the disease. With no antitoxin available with which to treat the town's children, the only hope of avoiding a full-blown epidemic was to receive a shipment of serum from a hospital in Anchorage to the south, nearly 1000 miles (1,600 kilometres) away. The serum was needed fast, and it seemed that flying the antitoxin out to Nome was the best solution, but the only two aircraft available were in Fairbanks, and had been dismantled and stored away for the winter. A pair of pilots offered to attempt the flight if the planes could be made ready, but it was left to Alaska's Governor, Scott C Bone, to decide. Many thought dog teams were the only reliable answer and he agreed. Ordering an additional supply of antitoxin from Seattle, he then called on the Northern Commercial Company to arrange for sled dog relay teams, whilst the hospital in Anchorage set about dispatching the serum by rail to Nenana.
Race Against Time
At Anchorage, the 300,000 units of serum were wrapped in an insulating quilt and then the whole parcel was tied up in canvas for further protection. The package left Anchorage by train on Monday, 26 January and by 11.00pm on Tuesday the train arrived in Nenana. A team of 20 mushers and their dogs were then to deliver the serum from Nenana to Nome. The last stage of the journey was to be taken by Norwegian Gunner Kaasen and his dog team.
Lead dog Balto2 was a relative rookie compared to the other teams and it was up to him to lead Kaasen and the serum the final 53 miles, enduring temperatures at 60° Fahrenheit below zero and 70 mile per hour winds. Kaasen was snow-blinded by blizzards, which at times flipped the sled off the trail. He had to place all his trust in Balto. Second-to-last on the relay, Kaasen actually missed the hand-off to the last team and continued onto Nome. On 2 February, 1925, Gunner Kaasen, led by Balto, finally arrived in Nome. Met by Dr Welch on First Avenue, the serum had arrived just in time to halt the epidemic.
What Price Fame?
Balto and the other dogs became international heroes, but within a year, the dog team, including Balto, was lost in the world of vaudeville sideshows. However, on a visit to Los Angeles, a Cleveland businessman discovered the dogs in a 'dime-a-look' museum. For the fee of 10 cents, visitors (Men only) were allowed into the back room where the dogs were on display. An animal lover, the businessman noticed that the dogs were ill and mistreated. He knew the history of the huskies and was outraged. A bargain was struck to buy Balto and his team and bring them to Cleveland, Ohio. The deal was to raise $2,000 in two weeks. With the help of the local media, Cleveland's response was incredible. School children collected coins in buckets - factories, hotels, stores and even visitors to the city donated what they could to the Balto Fund. The Western Reserve Kennel Club added a much needed financial boost and the money was raised in 10 days.
A Heroes Welcome
On 19 March, 1927, Balto and six companions - Tillie, Fox, Sye, Billy, Old Moctoc and Alaska Slim - were brought to Cleveland and given a parade through Public Square to City Hall. The honoured dogs were then taken to Brookside Zoo where they lived out the remainder of their lives in dignity. Approximately 15,000 people visited them on the first day. Balto died on 14 March, 1933, at the age of 11. His body was later mounted at The Cleveland Museum of Natural History.