Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
Late last December, Disney released their new film “Togo,” about the 1925 Nome Serum Run, exclusively on their Disney+ streaming service. That movie inspired this article, but you don’t need to watch the movie to follow along. With the start of mushing seasons and the 2020 Iditarod fast approaching, this is the perfect time to remember the greatest mushing tale of them all.
Just the basic facts of the Nome Serum Run make for a thriller, including sick children, gale-force winds, whiteout conditions, cracking ice, and dogs and men pushed beyond their limits. Beginning around the middle of January 1925, several children in Nome contracted diphtheria, a highly contagious bacterial infection that targets the respiratory system. In short, diphtheria victims can choke to death as infected tissue expands and block airways. It’s an ugly way to die, throats filling with a grey mass and throats swelling as the patient asphyxiates. Unfortunately, Nome’s only doctor had run out of the serum necessary to treat the infection. An earlier order for a resupply went unfulfilled with the arrival of winter.
Winter and a nasty approaching storm prevented planes from delivering the serum. With only one method of transportation left, Nome’s salvation was left to dog sled teams. Over the course of five and a half days, 20 drivers and 150 dogs traveled almost 700 miles in a relay race against time. Leonhard Seppala, already a dog racing legend, set out to retrieve the serum from Nenana. His beloved Togo, a husky named for a Japanese admiral, was in his typical lead position.
When Seppala left, his intention was to travel the entire course on his own. A relay of drivers was built after his departure, and he would still drive the longest and most dangerous leg. Early on the morning of Feb. 2, musher Gunnar Kaasen arrived in Nome with the necessary serum, staving off a potential epidemic that could have depopulated the Seward Peninsula.
Details of Nome’s desperation and the serum relay were transmitted to the Lower 48. Unbeknownst to Seppala as he raced in minus 40-degree weather, his efforts were a national sensation. After the race, Kaasen, Seppala and their lead dogs became celebrities, touring the country.
Contrary to perception, historians manage to watch historical movies all the time without fainting from every inaccuracy. For example, “Togo” the movie opens with Seppala driving a dog team through the woods and down a steep slope to the small town of Nome, which is shown surrounded by sea and mountains. Except, Nome isn’t directly surrounded by wooded mountains but by treeless tundra. The movie fails to slavishly recreate 1925 Nome, yet it does replicate a sense of the community’s relative isolation. This aspect of life in Nome matters more to the story than the proximity of mountains, even if the film depiction better matches the Outside perception of Alaska — trees, mountains and ice exclusively — than the actual Alaska complexity.
The visible Nome businesses, including the Sideboard, Golden Gate Hotel and Dexter Saloon, match the names if not the exact appearance of their historical inspirations. And the real Nome hospital was larger in every dimension than the small building shown in the movie. Shot around Alberta, Canada, the film takes numerous little liberties with the physical surroundings. However, these details impair neither the story nor the essential historic truths of the diphtheria outbreak, Seppala and Togo.
The diphtheria threat was real, as were the dangers of the trail faced by Seppala, the other drivers and their dogs. Five people in Nome died. Many of the mushers endured severe frostbite, and several dogs died from the cold and exertion. The cracking of the ice over water was also all too real, with teams sometimes only inches from falling forever into the frozen depths.
While some smaller aspects were altered for the sake of the movie, what might be considered some of the more sensational aspects of the movie are historically accurate. These factual scenes include a young Togo leaping through a window to find his master, Seppala almost driving a dog team over a cliff in an earlier race, and the crossing of the ice-covered Norton Sound in order to save time.
Compared to more outrageous and offensively inaccurate portrayals of history, like “Braveheart” or “Pocahontas,” “Togo” is almost a documentary, perfectly suitable for classroom use. As a bonus, the sharp cheekbones and lined face of star Willem Dafoe are eerily similar to Seppala.
And most importantly for the sake of an accurate narrative, Balto is limited to seconds on screen, a memorable but lesser aspect of a far grander story. If the average American knows one thing about the Nome serum run, they know about Balto, partly due to the 1995 animated feature. Balto was Kaasen’s lead dog during the serum run and thus was at the forefront as the team entered Nome carrying the lifesaving serum. As a result, Balto received an outsized portion of the fame from the journey, including more acclaim than Togo.
Seppala bred, named, raised and trained Balto but did not race with him. In a 1927 New York Times article, he claimed that a forgotten dog named Fox has been co-lead with Balto on Kaasen’s team. Three years later, in his memoir, Seppala backtracked ever so slightly. He said, “I hope I shall never be the man to take away credit from any dog or driver who participated in that run” but maintained that Balto was only a “scrub dog.” Togo depicts Fox and Balto leading for Kaasen.
A Balto statue still stands in New York’s Central Park. Said Seppala in his memoir, “I resented the statue to Balto, for if any dog deserved special mention, it was Togo.” Seppala, who died in 1967, would have also resented Anchorage’s Balto Seppala Park, which was developed in the early 1980s. The park fosters the misconception of Balto as the singular hero dog of Nome and links Seppala more strongly to Balto than they were in real life.
Togo’s story isn’t some form of hidden history. His mounted body is featured at the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race headquarters in Wasilla, and his role in the serum run is well known among mushers and historians. Still, Balto remains more famous for the general public. Any opportunity is a good opportunity to spread the worthy truth of Togo.
Alaska’s Digital Archives, vilda.alaska.edu.
“Balto Not Nome Hero Dog; Seppala Says Husky Named Fox Was Leader of His Team.” New York Times, March 9, 1927.
Ricker, Elizabeth M. Seppala: Alaskan Dog Driver. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1930.
Salisbury, Gay, and Laney Salisbury. The Cruelest Miles: The Heroic Story of Dogs and Meen in A Race Against an Epidemic. New York: Norton, 2005.
Steinmetz, Katy. “Top 10 Heroic Animals.” Time, March 21, 2011,