This furry hero saved a small Alaskan town in the most epic way.
The animated movie “Balto” was one of my favorites when it came out in 1995. It had dogs, snow and adventure — everything my Kindergarten-age self needed to be totally captivated for 2 hours.
A friend told me recently that “Balto” is actually based on a true story. I was surprised to hear this — so I dove into the history (and re-watched the movie for good measure).
Here’s what I learned:
The movie version
In the movie, Balto is a charming but socially-outcast wolf-dog hybrid living in the remote Alaskan town of Nome. His only friends are a snow goose named Boris and a couple of goofy polar bears named Muk and Luk.
One night, all the children of Nome get sick with diphtheria and the town’s only doctor says he’s out of antitoxin. The doctor orders a shipment of the stuff from Juneau, but a winter storm makes shipping it by air or sea impossible. The town decides to send a team of sled dogs 600 miles overland to retrieve the medicine and stages a race to determine which dogs to send on the mission. Balto is sadly disqualified for being a mutt.
The team of dogs reaches the antitoxin shipment successfully, but on its way back, the musher (the man riding the sled) is knocked unconscious. Balto sets out with Boris, Muk and Luk to find the stranded team. The group’s journey is filled with grizzly bears, bad weather and falls off of cliffs before it heroically returns to Nome with the medicine and the original team that had been stranded in the wilderness. The medicine saves the children and everyone’s happy.
The real-life version
…is equally gripping, if not more so.
Here’s what happened: In January 1925 there was a diphtheria outbreak in Nome, but no antitoxin serum with which to treat people. The area’s only doctor at the time, Curtis Welch, knew there’d be an outbreak if medicine wasn’t brought from Anchorage ASAP. Anchorage was more than 1,000 miles from Nome, and back then, planes couldn’t fly during Alaskan winters. Alaska’s governor ordered the serum to be put on a train from Anchorage to Nenana, the closest town to Nome that was accessible by rail. Nenana and Nome are 674 miles apart.
The town of Nome dispatched a team of 150 dogs and 20 humans to fetch the anti-diptheria medicine from Nenana. Getting the medicine was the easy part — bringing it back would prove to be more of a challenge. That’s because doctors estimated that the serum could only withstand Alaska’s brutal winter temperatures (which dropped as low as -60°F) for 6 days before it ran the risk of spoiling. On the 674-mile sled journey from Nenana to Nome, more than one of the mushers came down with frostbite and many of the devoted sled dogs died on the trail. ?
In the end, it took the team five-and-a-half days to get from Nenana to Nome with the serum. Although some of the townspeople perished from diptheria, the arrival of the medicine did exactly what it was supposed to: prevent an outbreak from happening.
The media controversy
At the time, radio was an extremely popular news medium, and the mushers and their dogs quickly became well-known celebrities on the airwaves. The large amount of publicity surrounding the epic event spurred a renewed interest in diphtheria research which eventually led to the development of the diptheria vaccine that’s still used today to prevent the disease.
Today, a controversial statue of Balto stands in New York’s Central Park. Many people believe that another sled dog, Togo, should have been credited as the hero of the escapade. Togo ran the longest and hardest portion of the journey — 350 miles — while Balto only ran 53 miles, which happened to be the final stretch, letting him get the hero’s welcome and all the subsequent fame.
Unfortunately, the popularity of the movie that I loved so much as a child has prevented Togo from getting the recognition he deserved.
It also exaggerated events that were already pretty dramatic: While neither the real life Togo nor the real life Balto fought off a grizzly bear, they did end up saving the lives of nearly 10,000 people from a deadly outbreak and inspired the research that led to the vaccine that still protects us today.