For more than 85 years, people in New York City’s Central Park have slowed to admire the bronze statue of a husky named Balto. Some stop to the read the plaque:
“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.”
The description is true — but is the statue of the wrong dog?
According to Balto’s original owner, yes. Leonhard Seppala was an experienced musher by the time he was chosen to lead the desperate serum run. Not only did he own Balto, but many other sled dogs, including his favorite lead dog, Togo.
Togo didn’t seem like hero material when he was young. Small, feisty, and a natural troublemaker, he was sold two times only to escape and return. Once back home, he regularly escaped so he could harass Seppala’s other dogs when they were in harness.
One day Seppala had to make a 160-mile trip. Despite being tied and fenced, Togo once again escaped. He followed Seppala’s trail until he met up with them the next day. Seppala put him in harness just to keep an eye on him, and Togo did so well, Seppala kept moving him up in position as the day progressed. By the end of the day he had logged 75 miles and had been placed in position as co-leader. Togo was the born leader Seppala had been trying to breed for years.
Togo went on to become Seppala’s most accomplished and renowned lead dog, winning countless races as well as working on everyday tasks. So when Nome was gripped by diphtheria and relays of sled dogs were the only connection to the railhead, Seppala chose Togo as his lead dog — even though Togo was then 12 years old. Through a blizzard of 80 mph wind, in temperatures of minus-50 degrees, Seppala trusted Togo to lead the way when just one misstep would mean death for all.
The plan was for teams to form a relay to pick up the serum and bring it back. Most teams were scheduled to travel less than 30 miles. Seppala’s team would travel the farthest, meeting the serum part way and then racing back with it to reach the next relay. Togo led his team for 260 miles, across the most dangerous part of the journey over the breaking ice of Norton Sound, in blizzard conditions, spanning four and half days with only brief rests, before handing off the serum to the next relay team.
The next to last team was one made up at the last minute, led by Gunnar Kaasen, a fellow worker of Seppala’s. He chose a dog named Balto to lead his team, despite the fact that Balto was more of a heavyweight hauler than a speedster. Kassan missed the handoff to the next (and last) relay because of the white-out conditions so decided to keep going to the end. Balto led the team the last 53 miles.
It was Balto the waiting townspeople saw emerging from the blinding snow, Balto who they cheered for, and Balto who they hailed as a hero. Togo was forgotten, despite doing most of the work.
The press acted as though Balto had led for the entire 1,348-mile round trip with help from no other teams. Seppala was secretly furious, even though he owned both dogs. He considered the slight to Togo unconscionable, and he tried to no avail to have Togo recognized as the rightful hero of the serum run.
When a movie offer came for Balto, Seppala gave permission for Kassan and Balto, along with some of his other dogs, to travel to Los Angeles, thinking it would take the limelight off Balto. It had the opposite effect, and Kassan and Balto toured the United States with crowds greeting them everywhere they went. Seppala also toured the lower 48 with Togo, but the ultimate slight came with the statue in Central Park.
“It was almost more than I could bear when the ‘newspaper’ dog Balto received a statue for his ‘glorious achievements,'” he wrote in his memoirs.
In the end, Togo was somewhat vindicated. He stayed in New England, where Seppala’s dogs set racing records, and Togo became a prominent sire, founding a line of dogs known as Seppala’s Siberian Sled Dogs. He spent his last days as a pampered house dog. Balto had been neutered as a puppy, so a stud career was not possible for him. In fact, he fell upon hard times … but that’s another story.
Fortunately, Togo now does have his own NYC statue in Seward Park on the Lower East Side. Also, statues of Balto and Togo can be found at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.
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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.