Last updated: June 29, 2021
This is the story of how a dog helped save a small Alaskan town...
In 1925, diphtheria swept through the small Alaskan town of Nome. Located 2 degrees south of the Arctic Circle, Nome was home to 455 Alaskan Natives and 975 European settlers. Between November and July, the port into Nome on the southern shore of Seward Peninsula in the Bering sea was icebound and inaccessible by steamship. During this time the only link to the rest of the world, was the Iditarod Trail, which runs 938 miles from the port of Seward to Nome.
Several months before the winter of 1924-1925, Curtis Welch, the only doctor in Nome, ordered more diphtheria antitoxin. Dr. Welch had discovered that the batch at the 25-bed Maynard Columbus Hospital had expired. Unfortunately, the shipment did not arrive before the port closed for the winter. Within days of the last ship leaving the port, Dr. Welch treated a few children for what he first diagnosed as tonsillitis. Over the next few weeks, the cases on tonsillitis grew and four children died. Dr. Welch began to get concerned about the possibility of diphtheria.
By mid-January, Dr. Welch made the first official diagnosis of diphtheria in a three-year old boy; the child later died two weeks after displaying the first symptoms. The next day a seven-year old girl died. Realizing that an epidemic was imminent, Dr. Welch called Mayor George Maynard to arrange an emergency meeting. A quarantine was immediately implemented. Despite this, there were over 20 confirmed cases of diphtheria and at least 50 more at risk by the end of the month. Without antitoxin, they believed that the mortality rate could be close to 100 percent.
Since no plane or ship could reach the isolated town, a unanimous decision was made to use multiple dogsled teams to transport the medicine across the dangerous land. Though Balto often gets the credit for saving the town of Nome, it was Togo, a Siberian Husky, who led his team across the most dangerous leg of the journey.
Named after Heihachiro Togo, a Japanese Admiral who fought in the war between Russia and Japan (1904-05), Togo was the lead sled dog of Leonhard Seppala. Seppala was a Norwegian breeder and racer of Siberian huskies from the Chukchi Inuit stock of Siberia. Togo was dark brown with cream, black and grey markings. He had ice blue eyes and weighed about 48 pounds at maturity. As a puppy, Togo developed a painful throat disorder that caused Seppala to lose interest in him. Eventually Seppala gave Togo up for adoption. Togo refused to be parted from Seppala and his teams and later escaped his adoptee's home by jumping through a window. A troublesome and mischievous puppy, Togo harassed Seppala's teams when he was harnessing up a team or whenever they were on a trail. To keep him calm, Seppala harnessed Togo in one of the wheel position directly in front of the sled. Through his journey to take a miner to Dime Creek, Seppala moved Togo up the line until he was sharing the lead position with the lead dog, named Russky. During his first day in the harness, Togo ran over 75 miles, a distance unheard of for an inexperienced young sled dog.
By the time Togo led his team over 261 miles during the Great Race of Mercy to deliver diphtheria anti-toxin, he was 12 years old. Though Balto received the credit for saving the town, to those who know more than the Disney story, Balto is considered the backup dog. Balto ran 55 miles, while Togo's leg of the journey was the longest and most dangerous.
Togo retired in Poland Spring, Maine, where he was euthanized at the age of 16. Following his death, Seppala had Togo custom mounted. The mounted skin was put on display at the Shelbourne Museum in Vermont. Today, the mounted skin is on display at the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Headquarters museum in Wasilla, Alaska following a campaign by Alaskan students to return Togo to Alaska. The Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University houses the skeletal remains in their collection.
What Makes Togo an American Hero? Despite rough beginnings, Togo saved the lives of thousands of people. In 1960, Seppala said that "I never had a better dog than Togo. His stamina, loyalty and intelligence could not be improved upon. Togo was the best dog that ever traveled the Alaska trail."