When the dogs beat the plane -- and saved Nome

FAIRBANKS — As a terrifying diphtheria outbreak gripped Nome in early 1925, Alaska's political leaders battled about whether dog teams or an unreliable open-cockpit airplane would be the best hope for salvation in the coldest part of the winter.

No event in Alaska history looms larger at this time of year than the 1925 serum run to Nome, part of the symbolic heritage of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race from Anchorage to Nome.

With mushers preparing to hit the trail this weekend, the Alaska State Archives has for the first time provided easy public access to a treasure trove of documents that reveal the drama of the moment 91 years ago when Nome appeared on virtually every front page around the world.

The state archives has made online copies available of the telegrams and letters that flowed into and out of the governor's office during the critical weeks when newspapers portrayed the episode as one of the greatest dog stories of all time. Every telegram is concise and blunt — befitting a transmission system that required a three-part relay — radio transmission from Nome to Fairbanks, a telegraph line to Seward and an undersea cable connection.

"Antitoxin for Nome going forward maximum of speed relayed dog teams from Nenana," Gov. Scott Bone said in a telegram to Congressional Delegate Dan Sutherland Jan. 26 about the first of two dog team relay runs to Nome. The governor wrote to Dr. Curtis Welch in Nome to say, "This office doing its utmost to expedite delivery."

We all know that the dogs and mushers won the race to Nome, but the argument about the airplane is one of the fascinating and little known "what ifs" in Alaska history.

The owners of the Fairbanks airplane, including the publisher of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, W.F. Thompson, had argued that Nome needed help immediately and that the day of the dog had passed. The life-saving cargo could be on its way to Nome at 60 mph, a one-day trip from Fairbanks, they said.

Along with Sutherland, the airplane promoters put aside logic, ignoring the scant record of cold-weather flying in Alaska and the enormous risk that the venture would never get off the ground or would end in a fatal crash.

A year earlier, the U.S. Postal Service had contracted with Carl Ben Eielson for a series of experimental flights from Fairbanks, but multiple crash landings led the postmaster general to conclude that Alaska was still too dangerous for air mail, winter or summer.

Bone, the territorial governor, heard the plea for an emergency flight to Nome but concluded that a midwinter aerial mission of mercy was preposterous. He had learned that the man who had volunteered to fly the old surplus World War I training plane had not been at the controls of any aircraft since a 1919 crash had left him seriously injured.

The telegrams and letters show the scant information that the territorial government and federal health officials had to base their decisions upon, and they reveal the tension between those ready to trust modern technology and those who had faith that only dogs could deliver.

Sutherland reported on Feb 1 that a crew in Fairbanks was trying to get the open-cockpit biplane ready for flight. Noel Wien had flown the plane between Anchorage and Fairbanks, but that was the preceding summer, when temperatures were mild and the sky was bright.

On Feb. 4, Bone told the Interior Department he would not authorize a flight unless the conditions became extreme because he regarded it as a "most hazardous undertaking with inadequate equipment and unskilled flyers."

Roy Darling, the volunteer pilot, had claimed there was little risk of failure. On Feb. 6, he told the governor's office that "with present equipment and proposed plan of flight, following close as possible route of dog teams, anticipate no great difficulty. In event of forced landing would expect nothing more serious than the delay incident to reaching nearest point of communication."

Later that day, an Anchorage deputy, Henry Staser, cabled a devastating report to Bone about deficiencies with the plane and Darling.

"Darling was last in the air six years ago when he crashed, badly injured," he said. The plane consumed 12 gallons. of fuel an hour and would have to stop twice for fuel on the way to Nome.

In case of a forced landing, the pilots would be unable to start the plane in the cold. The Standard J-1 plane already had more than 450 hours of flight time on an engine that wasn't expected to last beyond 600 hours. To make matters worse, the compass on the plane wasn't reliable, he said.

The next day the governor's office again said, "The airplane attempt is inadvisable and unnecessary."

There were many exaggerated claims about the course of the epidemic and the danger faced by residents of Nome, where five or six people died.

The airplane promoters kept pushing for Bone to designate some of the antitoxin for air delivery. He finally did so on Feb. 7, but it was 40 below zero and radiator problems and other mechanical issues kept the plane from getting off the ground.

The weather did not stop the dogs, however, and the second shipment of serum reached Nome on Feb. 15.

Bone wrote to Interior Secretary Hubert Work to say that a complicated situation had been "rendered doubly difficult by the hysteria prevailing." He said he had been attacked and "malign politics has shown its vicious hand." An official from Nome had complained that the territory was willing to see people die "while red-blooded men are willing to fly airplanes to our relief."

The men were willing but the airplane wasn't.

"The demand that an antiquated airplane be manned and fly from Fairbanks to Nome with a limited consignment of serum was preposterous in the extreme, especially at that moment when it was not immediately needed," Bone wrote to the interior secretary. "It would only have invited death and meant relief and searching parties in quest of lost flyers at heavy additional cost and to the neglect of the Nome situation."

Had the diphtheria outbreak occurred five years later, when more airplanes and pilots were on the scene, things might have been different, but severe weather would have remained a challenge.

As News-Miner publisher Thompson had to admit in 1925, weather could always stop an airplane but a dog could keep going.

"We take our hat off to the dog," he wrote.

Dermot Cole is a Fairbanks columnist for the Alaska Dispatch News. The views expressed here are his and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.