Part Two of The 1925 Serum Run on Mushing Radio hosted by Alex Stein. On this episode, the dogs begin to run!
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Previously on the 1925 Serum Run. In January 1925, Dr. Curtis Welch of Nome noticed an uptick of patients with severe coughs.
After several deaths, he determined that the cause was diphtheria, a bacterial infection that causes gray lesions in the mouth and throat that eventually make it impossible to breathe. The Nome Board of Health declared a quarantine and sent out an urgent plea for antitoxin to be sent to Nome. Because of the severe weather, it was decided that the best way to bring the antitoxin in was to have two dog teams start at opposite ends of the state and meet in the middle.
back with the anti-toxin.
This week, the dogs start to run. The plan is for antitoxin to arrive in Anchorage.
be taken by train up to Ninana near Fairbanks, and put on a dog sled going west. It’s 674 miles from Ninana to Nome. According to the plan approved by Nome’s Board of Health, the handoff would take place in Nulato, 319 miles away from Nome. This means a musher would travel 319 miles from Nome to Nulato, get the antitoxin, turn around, and drive his dogs another 319 miles back.
Mark Summers, who owns several gold mining companies, says he knows just the man to make that 638 mile trip, and luckily that man works for him. Leonard Sepala, legendary musher of Siberian huskies and the winner of the last three All Alaska sweepstakes, is told to get his dogs ready. Seppala, who’d arrived in Nome as part of the Gold Rush in 1900, is a relatively small man.
about 145 pounds. This makes him ideal for standing on the runners behind a dog sled. And while other mushers consider 40 miles a day a good distance to go, Seppala and his team of huskies often run 50 or even 100 miles a day.
He claims he ran 7,000 miles one winter on a dog sled. Seppala, a natural showman and great athlete, sometimes walks down Front Street in Nome on his hands, showing off for the local kids. Seppala’s kennel includes 36 Siberian huskies. He says those are the only dogs that are strong and sturdy enough. He plans to take 20 to Nalato.
Seppala is also known for his innovation in training dogs. He’s one of the first mushers to train dogs by having them pull carts in the summers, a practice still common today. From 1915 to 1917, Seppala totally dominated dog sled races.
His dogs exhibited the type of strength and stamina his competitors could only dream of, and he had a legendary rapport with the dogs that led some to question whether he’d somehow hypnotized them into doing what he wanted. But others feel that Seppala’s glory days are behind him. His lead dog for the last All Alaska victories, a Siberian husky named Togo, is now 12 years old, considered well past his prime for a leader.
to one another. Even in 1925, Togo knows exactly what sepulchra is thinking and can do things that seem at first to be impossible. Many of the best and most successful mushers in the modern era have emulated different aspects of Seppala’s personality. And it’s not at all a stretch to see sepulchra-like traits in mushers as different today as Jeff King, Dallas and Mitch Seedy, and Lance Mackey.
That word comes in from Anchorage that 300,000 units of antitoxin are at a hospital and can be sent to Nome. It’s not the 1 million units Dr. Welch wanted, but it will be a good start and could be enough to keep the disease at bay until more can be sent. Federal officials locate another 1.1 million units up and down the West Coast.
Those doses are sent to Seattle, where they can be brought north by boat, and hopefully make it to Alaska by the end of January. Alaska’s territorial representative to the U.S. Congress, Fighting Dan Sutherland, tries to rally bush pilots to see if any could fly the antitoxin to Nome. But at the same time,
Dr. John Beeson, chief surgeon at the Anchorage Hospital that has the 300,000 units of antitoxin, asks Alaska’s territorial governor, Scott Bone, if the antitoxin can be transported on dog sleds. This would take advantage of a dog sled infrastructure that is already used successfully to transport mail into the bush. More importantly, Beeson himself has first-hand experience with using dog sleds to deliver
there. He became an Alaskan celebrity when he took a dog sled to the remote village of Iditarod to treat a patient. Beeson met up with Leonard Seppala himself on his way back to Anchorage, and Seppala traveled with Beeson at one point snowshoeing ahead of their teams so he could break trail when it started to snow. In Anchorage, Beeson carefully packs up the antitoxin, putting the glass vials in a lined case, wrapping the case in a quilt,
putting the quilt into a wooden crate. Finally, he wraps a cloth around the crate to deliver it to the Alaska railroad to transport north to Ninana. As an afterthought, he puts a note on top of the cloth, saying that the antitoxin should be brought in and warmed up every few hours. Governor Boone, meanwhile, is still toying with the idea of flying the antitoxin to Nome.
But the weather in the interior, not known for its moderate winters, turns even colder. It’s 45 and then 50 below in Fairbanks. Most of the interior is stuck in a deep freeze, with temperatures colder than they’ve been in 20 years. On January 26th, Bone makes his final decision.
It’s just too cold and too risky for planes to fly to Nome. Even if the water-cooled engines could be kept going, the available planes all have open cockpits and it would be difficult, probably impossible, for pilots to survive the trip. Bone sends word to Edward Wetzler, the postmaster in Ninana, to line up dog sled teams for a relay to take the anti-toxin out to Nome. Bone promises that the territory of Alaska will pick up the costs.
He then sends word to Dr. Welch and Nome, telling him to send dog teams east to meet the relay.
Bone decides to use a relay team instead of dogs from one team going halfway and dogs from the other team going the other half, in hopes that this will mean the antitoxin can keep moving day and night. When one team reaches the point where they need to rest, a new fresh team can be on hand waiting to continue the journey. This should shave days off of the time required to get the antitoxin to know. Early in the morning of January 27th.
Dr. Beeson brings his 20-pound package containing the antitoxin down to the train station where it’s put on the northbound train. Governor Bohn’s decision doesn’t make everyone happy. The publisher of the Fairbanks Daily News Miner, William Rongfondt Thompson, had been pushing to take the antitoxin by plane, thinking that an aviation rescue would be a huge story that would show the state and its residents in the best possible light.
Thompson lashes out in the way only men who buy ink by the barrel can do. On the evening of January 26, Thompson goes home and writes the first of a series of angry editorials criticizing Bone and everyone else involved in the dog sled relay. Thompson’s editorial published the next morning, January 27, says in part,
Fairbanks is standing by, ready with airships and men to cut Nome’s waiting time in half if Washington just wires the orders to go. Instead, Fairbanks, only four hours away by airship, must sit by the fire and envision the Nome babies and their pioneering parents strangling and dying most horrible deaths. He later wrote, The friendly North has passed from the dog team stage into the airship class. In cases of great emergency,
The dog should be allowed to sit by the fire and dream of old days over again, while gasoline and flying machines do the work that kills dogs. The route selected for the dogs to follow is roughly the same as the route taken by the Iditarod Trail sled dog race during its recent Fairbanks restarts, and covers much of the ground of the historic Iditarod Trail.
Nenana is the last stop on the railroad before Fairbanks and is located on the Old Mail Trail. From Nenana the route follows the Tanana River to the mighty Yukon River. At Kaltag the relay will follow the Portage route over land to Unalakleet and then up the coast across the frozen sea ice and into Nome.
This trail is well traveled in winter and a linked system of roadhouses had sprung up along the route for travelers. Wetzler sends out telegrams to mushers directing them to bring their dog teams and wait at their assigned roadhouses. On the evening of January 27th, Wild Bill Shannon waits inside the train station at
The hour grows later and the temperature continues to drop. Shannon, who is a male driver, trapper, and fearless musher, is said to have the best dogs in the area. He’s also known for having a short fuse and for taking bold risks with his dogs. These risks lead at times to big rewards, and at other times to big disasters.
The train finally pulls into the station just before 9pm. It’s 50 degrees below zero. Given the weather, it may have made more sense to wait until the morning. Shannon looks across the river to the cemetery where 46 Athabascan Indians who died seven years earlier during the influenza pandemic are buried. Shannon tells Wetzler, if people are dying, let’s get started.
Conductor Frank Knight hands over the 20 pound box and Shannon ties it to his sled. He double checks the lines, triple checks his equipment, and then sets out into the night. Wild Bill’s dog team is led by 5 year old Blackie, but the remaining 8 dogs are yearlings with little experience. They’ve never before done a 12 hour run and have little experience with the type of bitter cold they’re running into.
The early part of the trail is rough going, filled with ruts from horse-drawn carriages. Fearing for the paw pads and ankles of his dogs, Shannon diverts the team onto the Tanana River. This is a risky move. Running on a frozen river puts the dogs and musher at risk if there’s overflow or uneven ice from the shifting waters underneath. And while a good lead dog can generally navigate around overflow, even in the dark,
They usually can’t see uneven ice until they hit it, possibly losing their balance or damaging their paws. But Shannon is lucky this night. And the river is relatively smooth. It’s the temperature that’s the biggest problem. In the extreme cold, Shannon soon realizes he can’t feel his hands and feet. He knows his brain isn’t functioning well either, and decides he needs to take drastic measures to deal with the cold.
Shannon starts shouting and waving his hands, doing whatever he can to stay warm. Eventually, he gets off the sled and runs next to Blackie in an attempt to keep warm. He stumbles into the Minto Roadhouse, about 30 miles from Ninana, at 3am on January 28th. The temperature outside is 62 degrees below zero. More with the windchill, but at a certain point that stops mattering.
And it’s just really, really cold.
Shannon is in bad shape. His face is badly frostbitten and the skin is turning black. Four of his dogs have blood around their mouths. Shannon is too tired to eat and colder than he’s ever been in his life. Following the directions of Dr. Beeson, Shannon brings the antitoxin inside to warm it. It’s cold inside, barely 50 degrees in the roadhouse, but that’s 112 degrees warmer than it is outside.
Ironically, Shannon might have been able to hand the serum off at Minto to the next driver, Edgar Callens. Callens had arrived in Minto around 10.30 pm on the evening of January 27th, and he hoped to spend the night there, but was informed there was a diphtheria epidemic in Nome, and he needed to return to Tolovana and wait for the antitoxin. In Minto, Wild Bill Shannon realizes there is no other option. There is no one to take the antitoxin forward.
He’ll have to go the extra 22 miles to Tolovana, where Callens is waiting. Shannon huddles by the fire, drinking hot coffee, and trying desperately to warm up. He starts to leave several times, but isn’t ready and sits back down. Finally, around seven in the morning, he repacks the antitoxin and goes outside to his dogs. It’s still dark, but it’s clear several of his dogs are in bad shape.
He opts to leave the worst three, Cub, Jack, and Jet, in the Minto Roadhouse because they can barely sit up. All three dogs will die within days. Shannon heads back out on the trail with six dogs in harness, headed for Tolovana. Just before 11am on January 28th at Tullivana, the sun is starting to rise. It’s warmed up slightly and now is only 56 degrees below zero.
There is a majestic stillness in the air, and Callans and the others wait for Shannon. From far away comes a sound, faint at first, then getting louder. It’s the telltale sound of dogs running and breathing together, and the soft swish of the sled’s runners moving across the snow. Then Shannon and his team come into view.
sets the brake and steps off the sled. His face is cracked and black with frostbite. Blackie looks tired but alert. The remaining dogs look exhausted and they are clearly in bad shape. Wild Bill hands the package of antitoxin to Cowens, who brings it inside to warm it up briefly before continuing the journey. A few hours earlier in Nome, Leonard Seppala gets the call he’s been waiting for.
Mark Summers tells Seppala to head out towards Nulato. They can have a relay for the first half of the journey, Summers thinks, but he knows that all he needs for the second half is Leonard Seppala. Seppala already has his sled packed, his food organized, so he gets his best 20 dogs and puts them in harness. As Wild Bill heads out from Minto, Seppala heads south from Nome. It’s 20 below zero in Nome.
with winds that make it feel much colder. The streets are empty because the quarantine is in full effect. For the most part, Nome is hunkered down, waiting. After a little bit of a bumpy start, the serum run relay is almost in full swing.
Next time, the press picks up the story.
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