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A race to save Nome

Posted: July 9, 2011 - 6:13pm

It isn’t every day when the president of the United States gives out letters of commendation to 20 Alaskan civilians at the same time. Those same individuals also received gold medals and each received $25 from the territory of Alaska.

So, you might ask, what occasion caused this to happen? Well, the president was Calvin Coolidge and the occasion was the 1925 diphtheria epidemic in Nome.

Around 1918 an influenza epidemic (Spanish flu) had swept across the Seward Peninsula and wiped out about 50 percent of the Native population of Nome, and 8 percent of the Native population of Alaska. More than 1,000 people died in northwest Alaska, and double that across the state, and the majority of the dead were Alaska Natives.

The Native Americans had no resistance to either influenza or diphtheria. So, in the fall of 1924 when the children of Nome started coming down with sore throats, the diagnosis was tonsillitis. But by Dec. 28, two children had died and the only doctor in Nome — Curtis Welch, who was supported by four nurses at the 24-bed Maynard Columbus Hospital — realized that he had the beginnings of a diphtheria epidemic. He had a supply of 80,000 units of diphtheria antitoxin from 1918 that had expired, so he placed an order with the health commissioner in Juneau. However, the order could not be delivered because the port in Nome was iced over and closed for the winter.

The number of people threatened in the area around Nome was about 10,000 and the expected mortality rate was close to 100 percent without the antitoxin. So, on Jan. 22, 1925, Welch sent a telegram via the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System and alerted all major towns in Alaska including the governor in Juneau of the public health risk. A second went to the U.S. Public Health Service in Washington, D.C. that read:

“An epidemic of diphtheria is almost inevitable here STOP I am in urgent need of one million units of diphtheria antitoxin STOP Mail is only form of transportation STOP I have made application to Commissioner of Health of the Territories for antitoxin already STOP There are about 3000 white natives in the district STOP.”

With shipping not an option, other proposals to get the antitoxin were considered. One proposal was to fly the antitoxin to Nome. The only planes operating in Alaska in 1925 were three World War I vintage Standard J-1 biplanes belonging to Bennet Rodebaugh’s Fairbanks Airplane company (later Wein Air Alaska). The aircraft had been dismantled for the winter, had open cockpits, and had water-cooled engines that were unreliable in cold weather. While potentially quicker, the board of health rejected the proposal and instead voted unanimously for a dogsled relay proposal made by Mark Summers of the Hammon Consolidated Gold Fields. The idea was to use two fast teams. One would start at Nenana and the other at Nome, and they would meet at Nulato. Leonhard Seppala was the only choice for the 630-mile round trip from Nome to Nulato and back. He had previously made the trip from Nome to Nulato in a record-breaking four days, won the All-Alaska Sweepstakes three times, and had become something of a legend for his athletic ability and rapport with his Siberian huskies. His lead dog Togo was equally famous for his leadership, intelligence, and ability to sense danger.

The U.S. Public Health Service located 1.1 million units of serum in West Coast hospitals which could be shipped to Alaska but could not get to Seward until Feb. 6 or 7. However, on Jan. 26, 300,000 units were found in the Anchorage Railroad Hospital. At the governor’s order, it was packed and shipped by train to Nenana and arrived on Jan. 27. While not sufficient to defeat the epidemic, the 300,000 units could hold it at bay until the larger shipment arrived.

While the first batch of serum was traveling to Nenana the governor ordered the U.S. Post Office inspector, Edward Wetzler, to arrange a relay of the best drivers and dogs across the Interior. The teams would travel day and night until they handed off the package to Seppala at Nulato. The mail carriers held a revered position in the territory and were the best dog punchers in Alaska. The majority of relay drivers across the interior were Athabaskans.

The first musher in the relay was “Wild Bill” Shannon, who was handed the 20-pound package at the train station at 9 p.m. Jan. 27. Despite a temperature of minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit, Shannon left immediately with his team of nine inexperienced dogs. The temperature began to drop and the team was forced onto the colder ice of the river because the trail had been destroyed by horses. Despite jogging alongside the sled to keep warm, Shannon developed hypothermia. He reached Minto at 3 a.m. with parts of his face black from frostbite. The temperature was minus 62. After warming the serum by the fire and resting four hours, Shannon dropped three dogs and left with the remaining six. The three dogs left behind would later die.

Edgar Kallands arrived in Minto the night before, and was sent back to Tolovana, traveling 70 miles the day before the relay. Shannon and his team arrived in bad shape at 11 a.m. and handed over the serum. After warming the serum in the roadhouse, Kallands headed into the forest. The temperature had risen to minus 56 and, according to at least one report, the owner of the roadhouse at Manley Hot Springs had to pour hot water over Kallends’ hands to get them off the sled’s handlebar when he arrived at 4 p.m.

From Manley Hot Springs, the serum passed through largely Athabascan hands before George Nollner delivered it to Charley Evans at 3 a.m. Jan. 30 at Bishop Mountain. The temperature had warmed slightly but at minus 62 was dropping again. Evens relied on his lead dogs when he passed through ice fog where the Koyukuk River had broken through and surged over the ice, but forgot to protect the groins of his two short-haired mixed breed lead dogs with rabbit skins. Both dogs collapsed with frostbite and died. Evans may have had to lead the remaining distance to Nulato himself. He arrived at 10 a.m. Tommy Patsy departed within half an hour.

The serum then crossed the Kaltag Portage in the hands of “Jackscrew” and the Alaska Native Victor Anagick, who handed it to his fellow Alaska Native Myles Gonangan at 5 a.m. Jan. 31 on the shores of the sound Unalakleet. Gonangan saw the signs of a storm brewing and decided not to take the shortcut across the dangerous ice of the sound. He departed at 5:30 am with whiteout conditions clearing as he reached the shore. Gale force winds drove the wind chill to minus 70 and at 3 p.m. he arrived at Shaktoolik. Seppala was not there but Henry Ivanoff was waiting just in case.

Leonhard Seppala and his dog sled team had traveled 91 miles on Jan. 27 to Jan. 31 from Nome into the oncoming storm. They took the shortcut across the Norton Sound and headed toward Shaktoolik. The temperature in Nome had been relatively warm at minus 20 but in Shaktoolik the temperature was estimated at minus 30 and the gale force winds caused a wind chill of minus 85.

Henry Ivanoff’s team ran into a reindeer and got tangled up just outside of Shaktoolik. Seppala still believed he had more than 100 miles to go and was racing to get off the Norton Sound before the storm hit. He was passing the team when Ivanoff shouted, “The serum! The serum! I have it here!” With the news of the worsening epidemic, Seppala decided to brave the storm and once again set out across the exposed open ice of the Norton Sound when he reached Ungalik, after dark. The temperature was estimated at minus 30, but the wind chill with gale force winds was minus 85. Togo, the lead dog, led the team in a straight line through the dark and they arrived at the roadhouse in Isaac’s Point a little after 8 p.m. In one day he had traveled 84 miles averaging 8 miles an hour. The team rested and departed at 2 a.m. into the full power of the storm. During the night the temperature dropped to minus 40 and the wind increased to storm force of at least 65 mph. The team ran across the ice, which was breaking up, while following the shoreline. They returned to shore to cross Little McKinley Mountain, climbing 5,000 feet. After descending to the next roadhouse in Golovin, Seppala passed the serum to Charlie Olsen at 3 p.m. Feb. 1.

By Feb. 1, the number of cases of diphtheria in Nome was 28. The serum in route was only sufficient to treat 30 individuals. Doctor Welch in Nome tried to order a stop to the relay because of the powerful blizzard with 80 mph winds but the lines were blown down and the order never reached the mushers.

Charlie Olsen was blown off the trail and suffered severe frostbite in his hands while putting blankets on his dogs. The wind chill was minus 70. At 7 p.m., he arrived at Bluff in poor shape. Gunnar Kaasen waited until 10 p.m. for the storm to break but it only got worse and the drifts would soon block the trail so he departed into a headwind. He traveled through the night, through drifts, and river overflow and over the 600-foot Topkok Mountain. His lead dog Balto led the team through visibility so poor that Kaasen could not always see the dogs harnessed closest to the sled. He was two miles past Solomon before he realized it and kept going. The winds after Solomon were so severe that his sled flipped over and he almost lost the cylinder containing the serum when it fell off and became buried in the snow. He acquired frostbite when he had to use his bare hands to feel for the cylinder.

At 3 a.m. Feb. 2, Kaasen reached Point Safety ahead of schedule. Ed Rohn believed that Kaasen and the relay was halted at Solomon, so he was sleeping. Since the weather was improving it would take time to prepare Rohn’s team, and Balto and the other dogs were moving well. Kaasen decided to continue on the remaining 25 miles to Nome, reaching Front Street at 5:30 a.m. Not a single ampoule was broken and the antitoxin was thawed and ready by noon.

The 1.1 million units were sent via a second relay on Feb. 8 after aircraft were tried but failed. The second batch got to Nome on Feb. 15 using many of the same drivers.

A statute honoring the lead dog of Gunnar Kaasen’s team, Balto, was erected in New York City’s Central Park in 1926, and President Calvin Coolidge honored 20 people for their efforts

In 1985, President Ronald Reagan sent a letter of recognition to Charlie Evans, Edgar Nollner, and Bill McCarty, the only remaining survivors. Nollner was the last to die on Jan. 18, 1999.

The last known survivor of the epidemic was Jirdes Baxter who was honored at the 2005 Iditarod race.

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