You might already know the story of Balto, hero of the so-called “serum run.” His statue stands in New York City’s Central Park with the inscription:
“Dedicated to the indomitable spirit of the sled dogs that relayed antitoxin six hundred miles over rough ice across treacherous waters through arctic blizzards from Nenana to the relief of stricken Nome in the winter of 1925. Endurance. Fidelity. Intelligence.”
But Balto was not an undisputed hero, and the main person who disputed his rightful place on that monument was his owner, Leonhard Seppala. Seppala (probably rightfully) believed his other dog, Togo, should have been the one hailed as a hero. He made no secret that he resented Balto’s undeserved fame, and he tried unsuccessfully to have Togo recognized in his stead.
So when a movie offer for Balto and his musher, Gunnar Kassan, came from Hollywood, Seppala gave his blessing, thinking Togo would finally take his place as the local hero. Instead, more attention was focused on the local dog made good, now sleeping in his own Hollywood hotel suite and living the life of a star. After the movie, Kassan and his team toured the lower 48 with a vaudeville act for nine months, attracting huge crowds wherever they went. Realizing his strategic mistake, Seppala set sail for the United States with Togo and his own team. He made many appearances, including one at Madison Square Garden, but still, it was clear the public considered Togo an also-ran compared to Balto. The ultimate slight came when Balto’s statue was unveiled in Central Park.
That’s when Seppala did something he shouldn’t have. Balto, after all, was his dog. And Kassan worked under Seppala. All he had to do was order Kassan back to work in Alaska. At the time, Kassan, Balto and six other dogs were still touring the country with the vaudeville act. Kassan had no choice but to return to Nome, and without means to pay for passage of the dogs, he left them in the hands of the tour promoter. Without their musher, and no one to drive them, the dogs lost their appeal. The tour promoter sold them to a “dime-a-look” sideshow in Los Angeles. There the dogs were housed in a dim back room with only one tiny window, hooked to the sled and ganglines with nowhere to go. They languished for months without exercise or human companionship, while patrons paid a dime to see the dogs once hailed a heroes.
It was in this wretched condition that a touring businessman named George Kimble recognized them. He was appalled at their deplorable condition and offered to buy the dogs right then, but the owner wanted $2,000. Kimble was given two weeks to raise the cash.
Fortunately, Kimble had newspaper contacts back in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. The Cleveland Plain Dealer made the dogs’ plight the talk of Cleveland, and a city-wide campaign began to raise the money. The local kennel club donated a generous amount. Hotels, shops and factories passed the plate. Mothers emptied their cookie jars. School children sent in their milk money. In only 10 days the money was raised!
Now Balto and friends (Fox, Sye, Billy, Tillie, Moctoc and Alaska Slim) were fed, spruced up and put on a train to Cleveland. On March 19, 1927, they made their entrance to Cleveland proudly pulling their sled on wheels with a band playing and thousands cheering. Their new home was a a large semi-circular enclosure at the Brookside Zoo –perhaps not what we would consider ideal housing for dogs these days, but a huge step up from their museum home, and probably even pretty nice compared to their Alaskan kennel. During those first weeks thousands of visitors came to see them.
They would live out their remaining days at the zoo. Balto died in 1933. He was blind, partially deaf and ailing. His age at death was a matter of dispute; newspapers reported he was 11, but some other sources said he was 14. A year later, the last surviving member, Sye, died at age 17.
Balto’s body was preserved and displayed at Cleveland’s Natural History Museum. Whether he was the hero of the serum run may be controversial; but the fact is that every musher and dog who braved the bitter elements and raced to save a town was a true hero.
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About the author: Caroline Coile is the author of 34 dog books, including the top-selling Barron’s Encyclopedia of Dog Breeds. She has written for various publications and is currently a columnist for AKC Family Dog. She shares her home with three naughty Salukis and one Jack Russell Terrier.