The True Story Of Balto, The Husky That Helped Save An Entire Alaskan Town From Certain Death

Published September 26, 2021
Updated November 8, 2023

When a deadly epidemic hit the remote town of Nome in the winter of 1925, a group of mushers and sled dogs risked their lives to save the town — with Balto standing out from the pack.

In January 1925, residents of Nome, Alaska, faced a horrific epidemic of diphtheria. Seven people were dead, 19 people were sick, and 150 were under surveillance for infection in a town of just 1,400 people. With the only cure hundreds of miles away, it seemed that the town was in danger of being decimated — until a dog named Balto helped save the day.

At the time, diphtheria was a major cause of death in America, especially among children. The respiratory disease had killed over 15,000 Americans in 1921 alone. The isolated town of Nome had no recourse to treat the illness and travel had been rendered nearly impossible by a brutal winter.

The nearest town to Nome with a train station was Nenana, and that was nearly 700 miles away. While traveling by dog sled between the two towns was possible, a typical trip usually took a month. By then, it would be too late to deliver the life-saving serum that the town desperately needed.

The only way to save Nome was by carrying out a relay race against time. It saw 20 mushers lead 150 sled dogs through gale-force winds, whiteout conditions, and cracking ice. The mushers broke the journey up into several stretches — and reduced the weeks-long trek to just over five days.

Now known as the Great Race of Mercy or the Nome Serum Run of 1925, a dog named Balto led the last leg of the journey — and emerged as a hero.

Inside The Nome Serum Run Of 1925


Wikimedia CommonsBalto was considered a lowly “scrub dog” before he joined the Great Race of Mercy.

Born around 1919 in Nome, Alaska, Balto was a Siberian Husky who was bred by a Norweigan-born musher named Leonhard Seppala. In his early years, Balto never stood out from the pack. However, his surprising skill and resilience would come in handy during the “Alaskan Black Death” of 1925.

The epidemic could not have come at a worse time. It was the middle of winter — when only teams of sled dogs were able to reach the town via the 674-mile Iditarod Trail. This route was often used to deliver mail from Anchorage, but Nome residents were now in dire need of medication.

To save precious time, a group of mushers pooled their resources and hatched an inspired plan. By breaking the journey up into several stretches, they could bring the diphtheria antitoxin to Nome in a fraction of the time. Facing an incoming blizzard with temperatures that could dip as low as -50 degrees Fahrenheit, the team prepared to take off on January 27, 1925.

That day, about 300,000 doses of antitoxin had arrived in Nenana by train from Anchorage. Wrapped in vials and protected by padded quilts, the cargo had been fitted into a metallic cylinder to ensure its safety. With no time to waste, the first musher “Wild Bill” Shannon set out with his team of dogs.

Sadly, Shannon lost two of his dogs and also suffered a blackened nose from frostbite. Still, he made it to the next stop along the trail and handed the serum off to the next musher in line. The medication would be handed off several more times before it reached the hands of Seppala.

Seppala was responsible for the most arduous leg of the trip. He had already traveled 170 miles to pick up the serum and would then travel 91 miles with the serum to take it to the next musher. With a resilient, 12-year-old sled dog named Togo leading the pack, Seppala confidently set out with the medication on January 31, 1925 — and Balto would soon take over.

The Heroic Journey Of Balto The Dog

Nome Alaska

Wikimedia CommonsBalto, Togo, and dozens of other sled dogs endured the treacherous path to Nome, Alaska.

Togo bravely led Seppala’s team across frozen pack ice and Little McKinley Mountain. They didn’t stop until they reached musher Charlie Olson. He would later pass the serum on to Gunnar Kaasen — who finished up the last 54 miles with the inexperienced “scrub dog” Balto as his frontrunner.

Before the serum run, which was now within proverbial spitting distance of completion, the black and white Siberian Husky was indistinguishable from the other dogs he grew up with. But completing the final leg of this life-saving relay race would transform Balto into an international star overnight.

There’s no question that the dire conditions that Balto ran through helped boost him to fame. Temperatures at the end of the journey hovered around -40 degrees Fahrenheit, while powerful winds sloshed snow in every direction. At one point, Kaasen couldn’t even see through the whiteout conditions. Still, Balto pressed on and never gave up.

On February 2, 1925, Kaasen and his pack of sled dogs finally arrived in Nome with the life-saving serum that everyone had been waiting on. Handing it off to the local physician, Dr. Curtis Welch, it was the final passing of the proverbial torch — just over five days after the team of mushers had first sprung into action. As Kaasen rested, he praised Balto, “Damn fine dog.”

While Balto and Kaasen only journeyed throughout the final stretch, the courageous canine had led the way and never once steered off course. With his furry face arriving in the anxious town first, Nome residents and the world at large immediately began to celebrate his heroism.

The Legacy Of Balto

Balto The Dog

Bettmann/Getty ImagesAfter his heroic actions, Balto the dog was honored with his own statue in Central Park.

Across America, Balto became a household name. In New York City, he was even honored with a statue in Central Park on December 17, 1925, just 10 months after the serum run. Sculpted by Frederick George Richard Roth, the monument still sits near the East Drive at 67th Street with an inscription:

“Dedicated to the indomitable spirit of the sled dogs that relayed antitoxin six hundred miles over rough ice, across treacherous waters, through Arctic blizzards from Nenana to the relief of stricken Nome in the winter of 1925.”

But not everyone found the monument heartwarming, For Seppala, the fact that Balto became a celebrity over Togo was frustrating. He felt Togo had endured a far more difficult journey than Balto and once wrote:

“I hope I shall never be the man to take away credit from any dog or driver who participated in that run. We all did our best. But when the country was roused to enthusiasm over the serum run driver, I resented the statue to Balto, for if any dog deserved special mention it was Togo.”

Ultimately, Balto’s legacy remains the most celebrated of all the dogs on the run. His monument in New York was complemented by an animated children’s film in 1995 and two later sequels. While kids worldwide cheered the brave Siberian Husky on through their TVs, the real Balto was long gone.

Dying at 14 years of age in 1933, Balto’s body was preserved at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in Ohio. It remains on display there to this day — so admirers can still pay their respects to a true underdog.

After reading about Balto the dog, learn about the very first guide dogs. Then, meet Sergeant Stubby, World War I’s most decorated dog soldier.

Marco Margaritoff
A former staff writer for All That’s Interesting, Marco Margaritoff holds dual Bachelor's degrees from Pace University and a Master's in journalism from New York University. He has published work at People, VICE, Complex, and serves as a staff reporter at HuffPost.
Jaclyn Anglis
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.
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Margaritoff, Marco. "The True Story Of Balto, The Husky That Helped Save An Entire Alaskan Town From Certain Death.", September 26, 2021, Accessed June 24, 2024.