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The Race Against Death

The children of Nome, Alaska, have been infected with a deadly disease. The cure is hundreds of miles away, across a frozen wilderness. Their only hope for survival? Dogs.    

By Gay and Laney Salisbury (Excerpted from THE CRUELEST MILES)
From the October 2018 Issue

Learning Objective: to write a news article, create a video, or record a podcast about the events in a work of historical nonfiction.

Lexiles: 850L, 1000L
Other Key Skills: literary devices, author’s craft, key ideas and supporting details, inference, figurative language, mood

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From his apartment window, Dr. Curtis Welch watched as the Alameda, the last ship of the fall season of 1924, pulled away from the dock in Nome, Alaska. In a few weeks, Nome would be almost completely cut off from the rest of the world by the brutal winter weather. Until spring, the town’s only link with the rest of Alaska would be one frozen, windswept dogsled trail.

The Alameda had brought Dr. Welch his winter supplies: cotton balls, ether, tongue depressors, thermometers, and various medicines. But one item he had ordered was missing: fresh diphtheria (dif-THEER-ee-uh) antitoxin. The hospital’s current supply had expired and was no longer effective.

Diphtheria is a bacterial infection of the nose and throat that can cause difficulty breathing, heart problems, paralysis, and even death. Today, most Americans are vaccinated against diphtheria as children, but this was not the case in 1924. The diphtheria vaccine had been around for only a few years, and most Americans had not yet received it. Instead, people were treated with antitoxin after they got sick.

In the 18 years Dr. Welch had been in Nome, he had not seen a single confirmed case of diphtheria. But as Dr. Welch well knew, the disease strikes suddenly and is highly contagious; without the diphtheria-fighting antitoxin, Nome’s population would be helpless in an outbreak.

Dr. Welch prayed diphtheria would stay away for another winter.

Unfortunately, the people of Nome would not be that lucky.

From his window, Dr. Curtis Welch watched as the Alameda, the last ship of the fall season of 1924, pulled away from the dock in Nome, Alaska. In a few weeks, Nome would be almost completely cut off from the rest of the world by the winter weather. Until spring, the town’s only link with the rest of Alaska would be one frozen, windswept dogsled trail.

The Alameda had brought Dr. Welch his winter supplies: cotton balls, ether, tongue depressors, thermometers, and various medicines. But one item he’d ordered was missing: fresh diphtheria (dif-THEER-ee-uh) antitoxin. The hospital’s current supply had expired and would not work.

Diphtheria is a bacterial infection of the nose and throat. It can cause breathing problems, heart problems, paralysis, and even death. Today, most Americans are vaccinated against diphtheria as children. But this was not the case in 1924. The diphtheria vaccine was still new, and most Americans had not received it. Instead, people were treated with antitoxin after they got sick.

Dr. Welch had been in Nome for 18 years. In that time, he had never seen a confirmed case of diphtheria. But the disease strikes suddenly and is highly contagious. Without the antitoxin, Nome’s people would be helpless in an outbreak.

Dr. Welch prayed diphtheria would stay away for one more winter.

Sadly, the people of Nome would not be that lucky.

Bettmann/Getty Images  

Nurses outside the hospital in Nome where patients suffering from diphtheria awaited the delivery of precious antitoxin.    

 

A Deadly Outbreak    

Soon after the Alameda had steamed off, a family with four children arrived in town. The youngest was ill, and Dr. Welch guessed the child was suffering from a mild infection.

But by morning, the child was dead.

Within weeks, three more children had died. Then, on Tuesday, January 20, 1925, Dr. Welch checked in on a 3-year-old boy named Billy Barnett, who had been admitted to the hospital two weeks earlier with a sore throat and a fever. Now the boy had developed a thick, gray membrane in his throat—a layer of dead tissue that could mean only one thing: diphtheria. (The name diphtheria comes from the Greek word for “leather,” to describe that thick membrane.) In a matter of days, the membrane could block Billy’s windpipe and kill him.

The town’s situation was desperate. Diphtheria can move from one warm body to the next through a single touch or sneeze. At the time, nearly 200,000 people in the U.S. were sickened by diphtheria each year, and it was a major cause of death among children, who are especially vulnerable.

To treat the townspeople, Dr. Welch needed 1 million units of fresh antitoxin. And he needed it immediately.

By January 25, a supply had been located in Anchorage, a major city 500 miles from Nome. It wasn’t enough for the entire town, but Dr. Welch hoped it would be enough to keep the disease from spreading.

But how to get the antitoxin to Nome?

In 1925, there were no jet airplanes, ice-cutting ships, rugged trucks, or snowmobiles. The Bering Sea, which surrounds the peninsula on which Nome is located, was already partially frozen, rendering it impassable to ships. The closest major railroad was 674 miles away in the town of Nenana. That’s nearly the width of Texas.

Nome’s officials knew they had to get creative. So they hatched a bold plan. They would have the antitoxin sent by train from Anchorage to Nenana. Then it would be carried to Nome—across hundreds of miles of frozen wilderness—by dogsled.    

Soon after the Alameda had steamed off, a family with four children arrived in town. The youngest was ill. Dr. Welch guessed the child had a mild infection.

By morning, the child was dead.

Within weeks, three more kids had died. Then, on January 20, 1925, Dr. Welch checked in on a 3-year-old boy named Billy Barnett. Billy had been admitted to the hospital two weeks earlier with a sore throat and fever. Now the boy had developed a thick, gray membrane in his throat. It was a layer of dead tissue that could mean only one thing: diphtheria. (The name diphtheria comes from the Greek word for “leather,” to describe that thick membrane.)

In a matter of days, the membrane could block Billy’s windpipe and kill him.

 Nome’s outlook was not good. Diphtheria can move from one warm body to the next through a single touch or sneeze. At the time, nearly 200,000 people were sickened by diphtheria every year. The disease was a major cause of death among kids.

To treat people, Dr. Welch needed 1 million units of fresh antitoxin. And he needed it right away.

By January 25, a supply had been located in Anchorage, a city 500 miles from Nome. It was not enough for the whole town, but Dr. Welch hoped it would be enough to keep the disease from spreading.

But how to get the medicine to Nome?

In 1925, there were no jet planes or ice-cutting ships. There were no rugged trucks or snowmobiles. The Bering Sea, which surrounds the peninsula on which Nome is located, was already partly frozen, rendering it impassable to ships. The closest major railroad was 674 miles away in the town of Nenana. (That’s about the same as the distance between Los Angeles, California, and Salt Lake City, Utah.)

Nome’s leaders made a plan. They would have the medicine sent by train from Anchorage to Nenana. Then it would be carried to Nome— across hundreds of miles of frozen wilderness—by dogsled.    

The medicine’s journey.    

Super Mushers    

Town leaders put out a call for the very fastest teams of dogs and the bravest and most experienced mushers, as dogsled drivers are called. The plan was for a relay: One musher would pick up the antitoxin at the railroad station in Nenana; others would wait with their dog teams in villages along the trail. Each musher would travel a portion of the trail and pass the medication to the next musher until it reached the trail’s midpoint, the village of Nulato. Meanwhile, a particularly skilled musher named Leonhard Seppala would set out from Nome and travel the 300 miles to Nulato alone, pick up the antitoxin, then head back toward Nome.

Under normal circumstances, the journey from Nenana to Nome took at least 25 days. The “super mushers” would have to make the trip in far less time. It was a risky plan for both mushers and dogs—and there was no guarantee the medicine would survive the freezing journey. But hundreds of lives were at stake, and there was no other choice: It was to be a race against death.

The journey began in Nome on January 27, when 47-year-old Seppala rigged up his 20 dogs and set out on the journey to Nulato. He would have to travel one of Alaska’s most hazardous trails and take a shortcut across the frozen Norton Sound. This shortcut would be littered with ice rubble—sharp fragments of ice that could slice open a dog’s paws. There was also the threat of the ice breaking up with little warning, carrying man and dogs into the deadly Bering Sea. Still, Seppala was the fastest musher in Alaska. If anyone could make it, it was him.

Town leaders put out a call for the fastest teams of dogs and the most experienced mushers, as dogsled drivers are called. The plan was for a relay. One musher would pick up the medicine at the railroad station in Nenana. Others would wait with their dog teams in villages along the trail. Each musher would travel a part of the trail and pass the medicine to the next musher until it reached the trail’s midpoint, the village of Nulato. Meanwhile, a highly skilled musher named Leonhard Seppala would set out from Nome and travel the 300 miles to Nulato. There he would pick up the medicine and head back to Nome.

The trip from Nenana to Nome usually took 25 days or more. The “super mushers” would have to make the trip in far less time. It was a risky plan for both mushers and dogs, and there was no guarantee the medicine would survive the freezing journey. But hundreds of lives were at stake, and there was no other choice. It was to be a race against death.

The journey began in Nome on January 27. Seppala set out for Nulato. He would have to travel one of Alaska’s most dangerous trails and take a shortcut across the frozen Norton Sound. This shortcut would be littered with sharp pieces of ice that could slice open a dog’s paws. The ice could break up with little warning, dropping man and dogs into the icy water. Still, Seppala was the fastest musher in Alaska. If anyone could make it, he could. 

Design Pics Inc. /National Geographic Creative 

Sled dogs like this Alaskan husky have been used to transport goods and people for centuries. They have tough feet, work well as a team, and love to run and work. Their thick fur keeps them warm in frigid temperatures.    

A Single Push    

As Seppala raced east, “Wild Bill” Shannon and his team of nine dogs were at the opposite end of the trail in Nenana, meeting the train carrying the antitoxin. The crate of medicine weighed 20 pounds. It contained glass vials of amber-colored serum packed in a padded container and wrapped in fur and canvas. Shannon loaded the crate onto his sled and set off for the village of Tolovana, where another musher was waiting. Normally, the 52-mile trip over frozen terrain took two days. Shannon was told to make the trip in a single push, traveling through the night.

As a rule, dogsled drivers avoided traveling in temperatures lower than 40 degrees below zero. That night, it was 50 below.

For the human body, such frigid temperatures are dangerous. It is difficult to breathe. Severe frostbite can cause flesh to die. And if hypothermia sets in, it becomes difficult to move, the body grows sleepy, and death may follow.

In spite of the risks, Shannon pushed on, pausing for only a few hours near the end to rest his dogs and warm his frozen body. Three of his dogs were too exhausted to continue, so Shannon left them to warm up at the trail outpost. He traveled the final four hours of the journey with only six dogs. When he arrived in Tolovana, his face was black with frostbite. Men rushed out from the roadhouse, loaded the medicine onto another sled, and helped Shannon into the warmth.

The first part of the relay was done. But there were still hundreds of miles to cover, and an enormous blizzard was making its way toward western Alaska.

In Nome, the crisis was becoming graver by the hour. “The situation is bad,” Nome’s panicked mayor announced in a telegram to leaders in Washington, D.C. “The number of diphtheria cases increases hourly.”

By now, the entire country knew of Nome’s plight. Newspapers and radio stations reported news of the epidemic. People across America prayed that the medicine would reach Nome before it was too late.    

As Seppala raced east, “Wild Bill” Shannon and his team of nine dogs were at the other end of the trail. In Nenana, Shannon met the train carrying the medicine. The crate of medicine weighed 20 pounds. It contained glass vials of amber-colored serum packed in a padded container and wrapped in fur and canvas. Shannon put the crate on his sled and set off for the village of Tolovana, where another musher was waiting. Normally, the 52-mile trip over frozen terrain took two days. Shannon was told to make the trip in one push, traveling through the night.

As a rule, dogsled drivers didn’t travel in temperatures lower than 40 degrees below zero.

That night, it was 50 below. For the human body, such cold temperatures are dangerous. It’s hard to breathe. Frostbite causes flesh to die. If hypothermia sets in, it becomes hard to move. The body grows sleepy, and death may follow.

In spite of the risks, Shannon pushed on. He paused for only a few hours near the end to rest his dogs and warm his frozen body. Three of his dogs were too tired to continue. Shannon left them to warm up at the trail outpost. He traveled the final four hours with only six dogs. When he reached Tolovana, his face was black with frostbite. Men rushed out from the roadhouse. They put the medicine on another sled and helped Shannon into the warmth.

The first part of the relay was done. But there were still hundreds of miles to cover, and a blizzard was heading for western Alaska. Meanwhile, things in Nome were getting worse.

“The situation is bad,” Nome’s mayor said in a telegram to leaders in Washington, D.C. “The number of diphtheria cases increases hourly.”

By now, the whole country knew of Nome’s plight. Newspapers and radio stations reported the news. People across America prayed that the medicine would reach Nome before it was too late.

Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images    

The story of Nome captured the nation’s attention and helped fuel a national vaccination campaign against diphtheria. Today, most children in the United States receive the diphtheria vaccine and the disease is basically eradicated here, but there are still some cases of diphtheria in other parts of the world where vaccines are not as readily available.

The Final Musher    

At first, the mushers were lucky. Seppala made it over the dangerous Norton Sound without mishap. Meanwhile, the antitoxin had reached Nulato earlier than expected because Nome’s leaders had added more mushers to the relay. There were now 20 mushers involved in the race to save Nome. One of the mushers, Henry Ivanoff, set off to meet Seppala and intercepted him outside Nulato.

Seppala strapped the medicine to his sled and immediately turned around to head back across the treacherous Norton Sound. Seventy-eight miles from Nome, in the village of Golovin, the exhausted Seppala handed the cargo to another musher, Charlie Olson. Olson traveled 25 miles to the village of Bluff, where the crate was loaded onto the sled of the final musher, Gunnar Kaasen.

At this point, the lifesaving cargo was only about 50 miles east of Nome.

But the monster blizzard had closed in, bringing powerful winds, blinding snow, and a windchill of 70 degrees below zero. Five miles in, a huge snowdrift blocked Kaasen’s path. He had no choice but to leave the trail and go around the drift, hoping that his lead dog, Balto, would be able to find the trail again.

The minutes crawled by as Balto sniffed through several feet of snow, trying to pick up the scent of the trail. Kaasen’s heart raced. His body ached with cold. If Balto failed, it would mean disaster for the people of Nome—and for Kaasen and his dogs too. 

Suddenly, Balto lifted his head and broke into a run. The team was back on track.

But the danger wasn’t over. For the next 20 miles, wind beat mercilessly at Kaasen and his dogs. The sled kept careening off the trail, dragging the dogs along with it. The musher was losing strength.

At long last, at 5:30 a.m. on February 2, Kaasen and his team pulled onto Front Street in Nome. Kaasen got off the sled and collapsed near Balto, muttering, “Fine dog.”

Within minutes, the medicine was in Dr. Welch’s hands. By the next day, it was clear that even the most seriously ill patients would recover.

The news was dispatched over the radio and telegraph announcing the victory of men and dogs over the worst that nature could throw at them. The mushers had made the trip in just six days. The dogs became heroes around the country, as did Kaasen and Seppala.

Nome had been saved.

At first, the mushers were lucky. Seppala made it over the Norton Sound without mishap. And the medicine reached Nulato earlier than expected because Nome’s leaders had added more mushers to the relay. There were now 20 mushers involved in the race to save Nome. One of the mushers set off to meet Seppala and reached him outside Nulato.

Seppala strapped the medicine to his sled and turned around to head back across the Norton Sound. Seventy-eight miles from Nome, in the village of Golovin, he handed the cargo to another musher, Charlie Olson. Olson traveled 25 miles to the village of Bluff. There, the crate was loaded onto the sled of the final musher, Gunnar Kaasen.

At this point, the lifesaving cargo was only about 50 miles east of Nome.

But the blizzard had closed in. There were strong winds, blinding snow, and a windchill of 70 degrees below zero. Five miles in, a huge snowdrift blocked Kaasen’s path. He had to leave the trail and go around the drift. He hoped his lead dog, Balto, would be able to find the trail again.

The minutes crawled by. Balto sniffed through several feet of snow, trying to pick up the scent of the trail. Kaasen’s heart raced. His body ached with cold. If Balto failed, it would mean disaster for Nome—and for Kaasen and his dogs too. 

Suddenly, Balto lifted his head and broke into a run. The team was back on track.

But the danger was not over. For the next 20 miles, wind beat at Kaasen. The sled kept careening off the trail, dragging the dogs with it. The musher was losing strength.

Finally, at 5:30 a.m. on February 2, Kaasen and his team pulled onto Front Street in Nome. Kaasen got off the sled. He collapsed near Balto, muttering, “Fine dog.”

Dr. Welch had the medicine. By the next day, it was clear that the patients would recover.

The news spread. Soon the whole country knew about the victory of men and dogs over the worst that nature could throw at them. The mushers had made the trip in just five days. The dogs became heroes around the country. Kaasen and Seppala did too.

Nome had been saved.

Bettmann/Getty Images    

An excited crowd greets Gunnar Kaasen and his dogs upon their arrival in Nome.

Bettmann/Getty Images

Kaasen with Balto, who became a national hero.    

 

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