Skip to main Content

Nearly a century after Balto's serum run made the husky a celebrity, he will return to Alaska

  • Author: Laura DeMarco, Cleveland Plain Dealer
  • Updated: March 1, 2017
  • Published March 1, 2017

Balto, the Siberian husky who led the final leg of the mythic 1925 serum run to Nome, will be on loan from the Cleveland Natural History Museum to be part of the upcoming Polar Bear Garden exhibition at the Anchorage Museum, opening Friday, March 3.

So will his teammate from the famous serum run to Nome, Togo, the lead dog for the longest and most hazardous leg of the relay. Togo arrives first and will be there for opening day. Balto arrives March 9 and will be part of the exhibition March 10-June 11.

The Polar Bear Garden exhibit focuses on the complex relationship between Alaska and Russia dating to the 1867 purchase, delving into ice, ambition, oil, commerce and more.

Congress and the press ridiculed the $7.2 million purchase of Alaska by Secretary of State William Seward as "Seward's icebox" — or President Andrew Johnson's "polar bear garden."

— Alaska Dispatch News

Musher Gunnar Kaasen hugs his famous dog Balto. Half wolf, half Siberian husky, Balto saved many people in Alaska. (Bettmann Archive)

Below is an article from the Cleveland Plain Dealer recounting the story of Balto's serum run, how he ended up in Cleveland, and his resting place at the Cleveland Natural History Museum.

CLEVELAND, Ohio — He came out of nowhere. Nothing, literally, is known about his early years.

He emerged as an international celebrity, a hero, in the span of a few days. His name was known by children around the world. It brought tears to grown men's eyes.

He was on the front page of newspapers everywhere. He led most every radio news broadcast for a week. He helped save lives, perhaps hundreds.

His name was Balto, and he was a dog.

A Siberian husky. And more than 90 years ago, he became one of the first modern celebrities as the lead dog on the brutal final leg of an expedition through a winter blizzard to deliver lifesaving serum to the diphtheria-stricken town of Nome.

The run from Nenana, about 670 miles away, concluded after 5 1/2 days on Feb. 2, 1925.

But like many celebrities, Balto fell on hard times after his heroic run — though in his case through no fault of his own, but that of greedy, cruel humans.

He and his fellow sled dogs were sold to Hollywood producer, Sol Lesser, who re-created their heroism on Mount Rainier for a movie.

Lesser soon tired of the dogs and sold their contract to a vaudeville troupe. The dogs were put on the road. But their musher, Gunnar Kaasen, eventually tired of being shackled to Balto, and the dogs were sold to a dime-a-peek circus/freak show.

The world's most heroic dog ended up chained to a sled in a small cage in a dingy Los Angeles circus.

But like all good celebrity stories, this one has another ascent. Fortunately for Balto, a Clevelander came to see him in 1927 — and changed his life once again.

"A Cleveland businessman named George Kimble saw the circus and was outraged!" explains Harvey Webster, director of wildlife resources at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. "He felt this dog saved children and a city and deserved a lot better than this. He negotiated with the circus to buy the dogs."

But Kimble didn't have enough ready money to do this on his own, nor did he have a place to house the dogs. So he turned to his fellow Clevelanders.

"He reached back to the city and the newspapers, especially The Plain Dealer newspaper, and the kennel clubs, and in short order they had raised more than $2,000 to pay the purchase price and transport," says Webster.

"Huskies' bark greeting to city for generosity" read The Plain Dealer on March 17, 1927, when the money was raised in 10 days.

The heroic Alaska dog ended up 3,500 miles from home, in a city that welcomed him with open arms and pocketbooks.

Thanks to Kimble and the campaign, Balto was able to live out his final days at the Brookside Zoo, now called the Cleveland Zoo. The dogs were welcomed into the city like heroes, with a grand parade on March 19, 1927. Balto became one of the most famous residents to ever call Cleveland home until he passed away in 1933.

But Balto lives on in Cleveland. He found a resting place at the Natural History Museum, where a permanent exhibit honors the great efforts of the sled dogs who saved Alaska from the diphtheria epidemic.

The exhibit includes Balto himself, plus new footage from the time of the run, and much more.

"He's an icon," says Webster. "He's been with us since he died, and on permanent display for 15 years.

"Balto's story is such a great story, it's easy to understand the appeal. It's a fascinating story about human health and what happens when you get people together in small, remote areas. It's about how others not from Alaska brought disease to the Inuits. It's about the early development of vaccines and injectables. But mostly, it's a story about the remarkable confluence of men and dogs who did the seemingly impossible in short order."

Cleveland celebrated the heroic dog — and the other 200 dogs and 19 men who participated in the serum run though 30 below to 50 below temperatures —with a special Balto Day at the museum.

The event included the chance to see the real Balto in the museum's permanent collection, a sled show by the Siberian Husky Club of Greater Cleveland, the chance to meet a sled dog, and collect stamps on an Iditarod trail passport.

Not just the sheer remarkableness of the feat made the serum run a part of American lore, says Webster. The timing also played a role — by 1927, Americans were ripe for a new celebrity.

"Coming out of the first World War and entering the 1920s, you had … for the first time for almost instantaneous distribution of news with the radio telegraph," says Webster. "The fact that the story played out over so many days just brought more people into the story — as did the fact that this affected children, and the men and dogs were so heroic."

Balto was an unlikely hero on the run.

That role was meant to be played by Togo, the dog of lead musher and run organizer Leonhard Seppala. But Balto, not even originally a lead dog, distinguished himself en route, says Webster.

First, there was the time he refused to go forward despite being whipped by Kaasen, who left his sled to find Balto standing waist-deep in the frigid Topkok River. His reluctance had saved the whole team.

Then there was the fact that he and his team ran twice as long as most dogs, because when they reached their endpoint 21 miles from Nome, they found no one waiting to take over.

But Kaasen felt Balto and the other dogs could go farther than their 25 miles and pushed them onward. They entered Nome before daybreak on Feb. 2 — and the rest, as they say, is history.

History with a happy ending in Cleveland for a most heroic dog.

Laura DeMarco is a reporter with the Cleveland Plain Dealer. 

Comments
Sponsored