On January 27, 1925 the U.S. Marshall in Nenana hammered on the cabin door of “Wild Bill” Shannon and begged his help in an emergency run to Nome.
A Nome doctor reported an initial case of diphtheria, an often-fatal contagious disease, in one of his patients. Dr. Welch telegraphed Nome’s plight to the outside world. Governor Bone decided that the quickest way for the serum to reach Nome was to ship it by train from Anchorage to Nenana, then by dogteam on to Nome.
Between the two towns lay frozen rivers, tundra, forest and a few scattered villages. During winter, the only people to travel the frigid miles between Nenana and Nome were dog mushers who delivered mail to the villages. Twenty mushers teamed up for the relay race to save Nome from a deadly epidemic. Without hesitation, Shannon agreed.
After midnight on the 28th, with the temperature close to minus 60°F, a railroad conductor handed Bill Shannon the insulated, 20-pound cylindrical serum package for the first leg of the relay. Shannon left Nenana with nine dogs on the 52-mile trip to Tolovana.
Less than 24 hours later the frost-bitten musher reached Tolovana and handed the cylinder off to fellow musher Edgar Kalland. Three of Shannon’s dogs perished in the effort from frost bitten lungs. Thanks to these stalwart mushers, the serum package reached Nome in five days, seven and a half hours.
After the serum thawed, Dr. Welch inoculated the population, thereby averting the crisis. The quarantine was lifted on February 21st, one month after the first diphtheria symptoms appeared in a six-year old boy. The emergency mush to Nome captivated the country. All of the mushers became world-renowned. Bill Shannon, his wife Anna, and their seven dogs were all booked on a year’s lecture tour of the States where they were feted like heroes.
Touched by celebrity, Shannon announced at the end of the tour that he was leaving Alaska and taking his surviving dogs to Hollywood “to enter the movies.” Stardom, however, eluded the man who was “blackened and scarred with the frost and (showed) the intense strain of the biting cold.” In less than a year he was back in Alaska again grubbing for gold.Willard J. “Wild Bill” Shannon came to Alaska as a sergeant with the Fourteenth Infantry and after mustering out, he became manager of the N.C. Co. store in Nenana.
Gold fever drew him into the Kantishna district where he became a well-known prospector and miner. In June of 1920, he and Anna staked lode claims near Slippery Creek. The next year Bill and his brother Edward found gold and copper ore there, each staking additional claims and a five acre headquarters site. Shannon and a group of Kantishna oldtimers soon reported the discovery of “large deposits of copper, cinnabar, and antimony on ledges traceable for over 12 miles.” Their news sparked a small stampede.
Although shy, the brown-haired, blue-eyed Anna could be coaxed to tell her own stories of wilderness exploits. One story Anna recounted was of an incredible journey around Mt. McKinley. Early one spring, the Shannons left their cabin in the Kantishna on a three-week prospecting trip through Rainy Pass. An early break-up caught them in the mountains and forced them to abandon their sled and non-essentials.
One by one the dogs died. They struggled on foot through deep, melting snow. With the rise in spring temperatures the mosquitoes hatched and attacked in dense clouds. The wind offered only the briefest respite with sleep impossible on calm nights. Under the constant assault Anna feared for her sanity.
Emerging on the southeast side of the Alaska Range, the Shannons lost the trail but battled on through vast, nearly impenetrable alder thickets. They built crude log rafts and risked their lives to cross surging rivers. In mid-June, with their food exhausted, their faces, arms, and hands bleeding from countless mosquito bites, the Shannons stumbled into a cabin on the Yentna River.
The meager food they found there saved their lives. Three weeks later they reached a mining camp on Dollar Creek in the Cache Creek district. After a few days rest and treatment they walked into the railroad town of Talkeetna. Anna estimated that in three arduous months they had traveled 600 miles. “All I know now is my mind was full of just one idea – to get out!” she later said. A year after his leg of the Serum Run, Shannon reported “staking extensive deposits of high grade silver bearing copper ores, carried in a vein two hundred feet wide…and quicksilver ore immediately north of Mount McKinley…the field is practically unexplored.” Again, the wealth he sought eluded him.
In 1937, Shannon discovered gold on the left limit of Muldrow Glacier, about six miles south of Mile 75 on the Denali Park road. Territorial Assayer William T. Burns examined it and found values ranging from $7.10 to $115.30 per ton. The higher figure meant fabulous wealth to the discoverer. A few months later Bill Shannon disappeared.
Shannon’s wife and friends feared that he’d been killed by a grizzly bear. He’d had close shaves before. On one hike to his mine Shannon saw his pack dog suddenly stop and whirl around with raised hackles. Shannon swung around just in time to shoot a grizzly bearing down on him. He credited the dog with saving his life.While locating claims on Slippery Creek in 1941, Cora Mitchell, Ole Fisher and Charles Brown found hewn stakes lying on the riverbank.
Suspecting foul play, they summoned Deputy U.S. Marshall John J. Buckley and an ensuing search turned up scattered human bones. Later, Shannon’s widow identified a rifle, shovel, pick, part of a pack sack and articles of clothing as belonging to her late husband. His brother, Edward Shannon, was summoned from Honolulu Station, where he worked for the Alaska Railroad. Somehow he identified the remains as his brother.
Because the bones were in an open, treeless expanse of tundra, Buckley placed the cause of death as “exhaustion and exposure.”One paper asked the right question: “Who really knows what happened to Shannon? Just another man lost to the great alone, in the great lonely region that claimed many unknown men, their dogs the only witnesses to tragedy.”
Tom Walker lives near Denali National Park and is a full time freelance writer and photographer. He is currently at work on the companion volume to Kantishna: Mushers, Miners and Mountaineers.