Great Race of Mercy by Garrett Smith

One of the most heroic events in American history you’ve never heard of.

Actually, many people have probably heard a version of this story. In 1995, Universal Animation Studios released a movie named Balto. In this cartoon, a half-husky, half-wolf hybrid named Balto is deemed an outcast among the other dogs due to his “wild” blood, lives on the outskirts of Nome, Alaska. One winter, a diphtheria outbreak occurs, causing many of the town’s children to fall terribly ill. A dog-sled team is sent to Nenana, Alaska, to retrieve antitoxin, but the team gets lost while returning to Nome. Balto, being half-wolf, decides to track the team, to which he succeeds, leads them back to Nome, and gains recognition as a hero. Many children (including myself) in the 1990s and early 2000s grew up with this cartoon, and we understood that it was based on a real story. As with any movie, however, there are inaccuracies, and many people are unfamiliar with this heroic story, during which many lives were saved by seemingly-unlikely heroes. What was the story like in reality, and why does it deserve to be remembered?

Nome is a small city located in Northwestern Alaska, next to the Bering Sea. During the harsh winter of 1925, a bacterial disease known as Diphtheria plagued the town, and especially infected the children. The town was in desperate need of medicine, but due to extremely inclement weather, vehicle traffic was very restricted. Ice was blocking ships from travel between the Seward Peninsula and the Bering Sea. Blizzards prevented airplane travel.

The only other choice was by dog-sled, as there were no railroads extending to Nome. The medicine shipment could be sent by train from Seward to Nenana, located near the central part of the state. From there, a dog-sled team would retrieve the medicine, and a race against time would begin.

Several dog-sled teams participated in the Great Race of Mercy, as it was named. The longest part of the journey was covered by a team led by Togo, the sled dog of Leonhard Seppala (top picture). A Siberian Husky, Togo was often thought of as incompetent, as he would occasionally attack other dogs, and along the Great Race of Mercy, he strayed off the trail at one point. Togo did succeed, however, at delivering the medicine to the final team, led by a Siberian Husky named Balto.

In actuality, Balto was not half-wolf. He did, however, display superb ability, and his musher (Gunnar Kaasen) claimed that Balto stayed on the trail even during the harshest conditions. Following the delivery of the medicine to Nome, Balto and his team received widespread press coverage, and even President Calvin Coolidge extended his warm appreciation to Balto and the team. Following the Great Race of Mercy, controversy ensued over who actually deserved the most credit. For me, this is detrimental to the story, as every person and dog involved played a role in saving the lives of children. Togo may have covered the most distance, and Balto may have made the delivery, but all participants are worthy of heroism. As President Reagan once said, “There is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don’t mind who gets the credit.” It is said that between five and seven children died, but one can only imagine how much greater the casualties would have been if not for these brave men and their dogs.

February 2 marks the anniversary of Balto’s arrival to Nome with the medicine. Balto’s statue is located in Central Park, New York City, as a monument to all who participated in the Great Race of Mercy. As another tribute, annual Iditarod races are held in Alaska. American heroes, as well as heroes everywhere, truly come in all forms and sizes. One of the final lines from the movie, Balto, should bring a tear to the eye of anyone familiar with this story, whether they have seen the movie or not: “Thank you, Balto. We would have been lost without you.”

Follow @GWSmith1993, an excellent historian and writer.

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