Race of Mercy to Nome, Alaska, 1925

The “race of mercy” was a daring and difficult trip to deliver medicine to Nome, Alaska in 1925. Many children in Nome were suffering from diphtheria. Because the town was so remote, there was no good way to transport the medicine.

About Diphtheria

Map of historic Iditarod
Bureau of Land Management

Diphtheria was once the leading cause of death in young children. It is sometimes called the “Strangling Angel,” because it grows in wing-shaped patches. As the disease progresses, it coats the airways, making it very difficult to breathe. Today, a vaccine has eradicated diphtheria in most industrialized countries.

The Story Behind the Race of Mercy

When the diphtheria outbreak occurred in Nome in 1925, the town was icebound and the only store of serum in the area was in Anchorage. Flying into the area in the height of winter was impossible. The only pilot who might have made the flight successfully was on another assignment and would not be back in time.

Community leaders between Anchorage and Nome came up with the concept of a dog-team relay. Each village would make their strongest dog team available for a leg of the trip. When the routes were assigned, Leonhard Seppala and his lead dog Togo were given the longest, most difficult part of the trip. Organizers knew that if any dog could make it across Norton Bay (or around if need be), it was Seppala and Togo.

Alaska did not yet have full railroad service, but there was a train that could carry the serum to the interior. It would be delivered to Nenana in central Alaska. From there, dog teams would carry it the rest of the way—about 674 miles.

When the first team started out, temperatures hovered around 40 degrees below zero. Winds were strong enough to challenge the dogs; some gusts blew the sleds over, tangling the harnesses connecting the dogs.

The goal was reached. In 127 hours (six days), twenty mushers covered almost 700 miles between Anchorage and Nome. The serum was successfully delivered in time to slow the epidemic. For a more detailed story of the trip, see Balto and Togo: Great Sled Dogs.

Last Dog Deemed the Hero

Afterward, one dog was singled out as the hero. Balto traveled the last leg of the journey. He received acclaim at the time. He has been the subject of numerous children’s stories and films. A statue of Balto also honors him in New York’s Central Park.

But by singling out Balto, history forgets about Togo and the bravery of the other dogs. Togo was the lead dog for Leonhard Seppala’s team. Seppala and Togo successfully took their team through the most treacherous stretch of the trip, reducing the trip by almost a day. Because there was no location where another team could step in, Leonhard Seppala’s dogs traveled doubled the distance of any other team.

While Balto is forever commemorated, Togo and the other dogs all deserve credit for their accomplishments.  These dogs are athletes with great spirit. Read more about the dogs in Balto and Togo: Great Sled Dogs.

The Iditarod Today

Each year, the Iditarod Race is run in Alaska. Dorothy Page (1921-1989), the woman who originally organized it, originally conceived it as a way to honor the men and women who explored Alaska (usually using sled dog teams) and resulted in opening Alaska. These earlier trips resulted in the exploration and opening of vast areas of unexplored parts of what became our 49th state. To read the story of the dog teams that helped with this early exploration, click here.

Also read about Libby Riddleshttps://americacomesalive.com/libby-riddles-1956/, a female musher who still races today.

To check on this year’s Iditarod, click here.

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  1. Pingback: The Iditarod: Also About the Exploration of Alaska - America Comes Alive

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