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Outdoors/Adventure

2011 Norman Vaughan '25 Serum Run: The ghost of Wild Bill Shannon

  • Author: Helen Hegener
  • Updated: September 30, 2016
  • Published February 24, 2011

It had been a long evening's presentation as the mushers, snowmachiners, support crews and others gathered in the Nenana community center listened intently. The trail boss, musher coordinator and others explained the final preparations and outlined their trip across the middle of Alaska, almost 800 miles from the small community of Nenana to the historic coastal mining town of Nome. The 2011 Norman Vaughan '25 Serum Run would be a dog team journey, with snowmachine support, to commemorate the 20 mushers and over 120 dogs who relayed crucial diphtheria antitoxin across the Territory of Alaska in the original Serum Run in 1925. More importantly, the trip would help to broaden awareness of critical health issues through the trek's unique "medical mission."

After a much-appreciated spaghetti dinner provided by the village of Nenana's senior citizens, everyone had gathered in the community center to hear the last-minute details, from a rundown of the expenses to the protocols and etiquette of traveling through the Bush country and the remote villages by dogteam and snowmachine. Fellow musher and Alaska State Trooper Terrance Shanigan had detailed the "medical mission" of this year's trip, suicide prevention, explaining that as mushers their goal was simply to make connections and introduce or open a dialogue about suicide prevention in each village they passed through. He stressed that they were not there to educate but to learn, and to open the doors for the villagers to discover more about the services and resources available for suicide prevention.

Musher Coordinator Erin McLarnon wanted to leave the group with a bit of history about the journey they were about to embark on, and with "The Cruelest Miles," the epic tale of the first Serum Run, in hand, she explained that the first musher to leave Nenana with the serum package in 1925 was "Wild Bill" Shannon, "a lanky and fair-haired jack-of-all-trades..." and "...a fearless dog driver, who was known to have the fastest team in the area." Erin then shared that she'd learned over dinner that evening that Wild Bill Shannon may have been murdered by his wife, perhaps for his philandering ways on the mail trails, and as that chilling thought sank in, the whistle of an approaching freight train sounded eerily through the night. People shuffled in their seats as comments were made about "the ghost of Wild Bill..." and then the group turned to drawing the start order and another drawing for the trail sweeps positions.

The Norman Vaughan '25 Serum Run website explains the journey and the mission in detail, and provides maps of the trail, biographical sketches of the mushers, weather details for several checkpoints, a page of Serum Run-related kids' activities, and video clips relating to the 1925 Serum Run. The 10 dog teams and their accompanying snowmachine support teams gathered on Front Street in Nenana on a blizzardy sub-zero Sunday morning, Feb. 20, to await the arrival of the serum package on the Alaska Railroad, just as it had arrived in 1925, as described in "The Cruelest Miles," by Gay and Laney Salisbury (W.W.Norton & Co., 2003):

"The distant chugging of the steam locomotive could be heard well before Shannon and the dogs saw the train. In this temperature, every sound reverberated through a tunnel formed between the warm air above and the heavier cold air below, traveling twice as far. Although Shannon could not see anything, the train sounded as if it was just around the corner.

"The crowd's excitement was infectious, and the dogs strained and leapt in their padded leather harnesses, tugging at the sled. Even before the train came to a complete stop, conductor Frank Knight jumped onto the platform with the 20-pound package of serum and ran over to Shannon."

With the serum package secured in musher Jan Steves' leading sled, team after team started down Front Street, turned and made their way down onto the Nenana River, then ran under the big highway bridge and disappeared toward Nome. As the teams dissolved into the blowing snow one spectator commented that they looked like ghost teams... And as the last team departed for Nome a light-colored pickup truck pulled down A Street in Nenana, toward the train depot, and its license plate read WLD BIL.

Helen Hegener is an author and a documentary filmmaker specializing in long distance sled dog races and the men, women and dogs who run them. Learn more at Northern Light Media.

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