In the winter of 1925, a deadly outbreak of diphtheria in the remote port of Nome, Alaska, threatened the lives of the 10,000-plus living in the area. Children were especially at risk, and Nome’s isolation created a nightmare scenario. An antitoxin was located, but the nearest point which the serum could reach by rail was Nenana, located 674 miles from Nome. With a blizzard approaching, air travel was ruled out. Officials determined that the only way to deliver the serum in time was via sled dog teams.
A relay of 20 teams was assembled, including that of Leonhard Seppala, Alaska’s most venerated musher. Amazingly, in just five and a half days, the “Great Race of Mercy” was completed and the lifesaving serum was delivered to Nome. While the lead dog of the 53-mile final leg, Balto, would become famous for his role in the run, many argue that it was Seppala and his Siberian Husky lead dog, Togo, who were the true saviors of the day. All told, the 12-year-old Togo and Seppala traversed an astounding 264 miles, compared to an average of 31 miles each for the other teams.
For years, Balto, who also came from Seppala’s kennel, was celebrated, even earning a statue in New York’s Central Park. However, those in the know regarded Togo as the serum run’s unsung hero. Over time, with the help of historians, Togo began to garner the recognition he deserved. In 2001, Togo received his own statue in NYC’s Seward Park. In 2019, his story was retold in the riveting Disney+ movie Togo, starring Togo’s own descendant Diesel as the namesake Siberian. Most recently, Togo was featured in the AKC Museum of the Dog exhibition “Mush! A Tribute to Sled Dogs From Arctic Exploration to the Iditarod,” on view now through March 29th, 2020.
The Norwegian-born Seppala first arrived in Alaska in 1900, when most sled dogs were burly Alaskan Malamutes or mixed breeds. Under the employ of the Pioneer Mining Company, Seppala began making a name for himself as one of the strongest mushers in Nome. Around that time, the first known Siberian Huskies in America were brought to Nome by Russian fur trader William Goosak. Those dogs, topping out around 50 pounds, would surprise by taking third in the annual All-Alaska Sweepstakes race in 1909.
That summer, English musher Fox Ramsay imported 60 of the finest specimens he found in Siberia to Nome. In 1910’s All-Alaska Sweepstakes, an all-Siberian team driven by musher “Iron Man” Johnson took first place in what remains a course record. Clearly, there was something to be said for these smaller, yet scrappy, Siberians as stellar sled dogs.
While whelping records from the era are scant, it’s generally accepted that Togo was born in 1913 to a dam named Dolly, who is regarded as a foundation bitch in the breed’s development. At the time, many of the Nome’s finest sled dogs were found in Seppala’s kennel. As a puppy, Togo suffered from health problems, and Seppala saw no use for the undersized, seemingly unfit dog. However, after being given away to a neighbor, Togo flung himself through a glass window and escaped back home. It seemed to Seppala that he was stuck with the incorrigible pup.
As Togo grew, he became captivated by the working sled dogs surrounding him. Still too young for a harness, he often got loose to run alongside teams training with Seppala, much to his owner’s anguish. His penchant for mischief led to a mauling when he ran up on a team of much larger Malamutes. Exasperated, Seppala decided to do what he did best with his dogs. He put a harness on the 8-month-old Togo and hooked him into the team. Togo ultimately ran 75 miles that day and worked his way up to lead on his first-ever time in a harness. Unwittingly, Seppala had found himself the perfect lead dog for which he had always yearned.
Over the years, Togo became known across Alaska for his tenacity, strength, endurance, and intelligence as Seppala’s prized lead dog. Togo led Seppala’s team in races and excursions long and short, and dog and man became inseparable. During this time, Seppala himself won the All-Alaska Sweepstakes in 1915, 1916, and 1917.
By the time the diphtheria outbreak struck in 1925, Togo was 12 years old and Seppala 47, both seemingly past their primes. However, with the fate of Nome in the balance, locals knew the aging yet experienced duo was their last, best hope. As deaths from the disease mounted, the decision to act was made. A multi-team dog sled relay was arranged to deliver 300,000 units of serum, already en route to Nenana by rail, the remaining 674 miles to Nome. On January 29th, Seppala and his 20 best Siberians set out from Nome with trusty Togo at the helm, to meet the westbound relay and retrieve the vital serum. Among those not selected by Seppala was Balto, whom the musher felt was yet unprepared to lead a team.
With temperatures hovering around -30 degrees, Seppala and his dogs made incredible time in their mad dash east, covering over 170 miles in just three days. All the while, the outbreak worsened back in Nome. Officials decided to add more teams to the relay, unbeknownst to Seppala. After cutting across the treacherously frozen Norton Sound to save time and distance, Seppala miraculously ran right into the team of Henry Ivanoff, one of the relay’s late additions, which was carrying the serum westward. The two teams nearly missed each other on the trail, but, thanks in part to the dogs, the connection was made. Naturally, it then fell to Seppala and Togo to bring the serum back towards Nome.
On the return trip across the Sound, the team became stranded on an ice floe. The quick-thinking Seppala tied a lead to Togo, his only hope, and tossed the dog across five feet of water. Togo attempted to pull the floe supporting the sled, but the line snapped. Amazingly, the once-in-a-lifetime lead dog had the wherewithal to snatch the line from the water, roll it around his shoulders like a harness, and eventually pull his team to safety.
Back on land after covering a near-impossible number of miles, Seppala and his team eventually made the serum handoff in Golovin, just 78 miles from Nome. Late additions to this final stretch of the relay included musher Gunnar Kaasen who, against Seppala’s instincts, had chosen Balto to lead his team. On February 3rd, 1925, Kaasen and Balto rode into Nome to a hero’s welcome. The serum had arrived, and the town had been saved.
While Kaasen and Balto were given much of the glory, it was Seppala and Togo who insiders knew had truly saved the day. In the years following the serum run, Seppala made trips to the Lower 48 states with his heroic sled dogs. Seppala traveled all the way to New England and took on a team of local Chinooks in a friendly sled dog race. With Togo in the lead in what would be his final race, the much-smaller Siberians triumphed.
Ultimately, Seppala and New England musher Elizabeth Ricker chose to open a kennel of Siberians in Poland Spring, Maine. It was there that Togo lived out the rest of his days in dignity and serenity. The indomitable dog was finally put to rest in 1929 at the age of 16. In 1932, Seppala returned to Alaska, whereupon the kennel closed and the dogs were delegated to friend Harry Wheeler. According to the Siberian Husky Club of America, all of the breed’s registered dogs of today can trace their ancestry to the dogs from the Seppala-Ricker kennel or Harry Wheeler’s kennel.
Over the years, more and more began to recognize Togo as the serum run’s true hero dog. Eventually, in 1983, his mounted body was given a place of honor at the Iditarod Race Headquarters in Wasilla, Alaska. Most famous among modern dog sled races, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is held each year in March, with parts of the route traversing the same 1925 serum run trails taken all those years ago.
Seppala himself passed away in 1967 at the age of 89. A fitting tribute, the Leonhard Seppala Humanitarian Award is given to the Iditarod musher each year judged to have taken the best care of their dogs. As for his thoughts on Togo and the “Great Race of Mercy”, which changed the course of his own life and dog sledding forevermore, Seppala summed it up thusly in his unpublished autobiography before his passing:
“Afterwards, I thought of the ice and the darkness and the terrible wind and the irony that men could build planes and ships. But when Nome needed life in little packages of serum, it took the dogs to bring it through.”
It is believed that the Siberian Husky was bred by the Chukchi tribe, a nomadic tribe from the Siberian region of Russia. While the exact history of the dog is unknown, DNA tests have shown that they’re one of the most ancient dog breeds in the world and, along with the Samoyed and the Alaskan Malamute, are descended from the original sled dogs. The common belief is that the name Husky comes from the word ‘Esky’, a short form of Eskimo.
Whatever its origins, the Husky was a valuable addition to the lives of the Chukchi. They not only pulled sleds packed with their owners’ belongings but also curled up with their families at night to help keep them warm in the sub-zero temperatures. Their usefulness was further demonstrated when the American explorer, Admiral Robert Peary of the United States Navy used Siberian Huskies to assist with his expeditions to the North Pole.
In 1908 dogs, which were still known as Chukchis at the time, were imported from the Anadyr River and its environs into Alaska. They continued to be used as sled dogs for transporting people and their belongings during the Gold Rush but, over time, their speed led to the development of sled dog racing, also known as mushing races. The most famous of these races was the ‘All Alaska Sweepstakes’, and the 657km (408 miles) race that stretched from Nome to Candle. These races led to the Husky being bred to be smaller, lighter, faster, and with more stamina compared to the freighting dogs, which typically weighed around 45-54kg (100-120lbs). The main breeder of Siberian Huskies at the time was Leonhard Seppala, and his style of Husky dominated racing from 1909 through to the 1920s.
In February 1925, Siberian Huskies played a key role in saving the lives of the people of Nome and the surrounding area. Nome was suffering an outbreak of the deadly diphtheria disease, and the closest serum for treating the illness was in Nenana, 1,085km (674 miles) away. Sometimes called the Great Race of Mercy, this perilous journey was a group effort, with a relay of sleds set up to speed up the expedition. A musher named Gunnar Kaasen took the first leg, with Leonhard Seppala and his dogs, led by Togo, taking on the longest and most dangerous part of the run, a 146km (91 mile) trek across the treacherous Norton Sound to Golovin. In all, twenty mushers and around 150 dogs were involved. Today, this lifesaving mission is celebrated each year in the form of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. It was also depicted - albeit with the significant artistic license - in the film Balto, named after Gunnar Kaasen’s lead dog. A bronze statue honoring Balto and his canine colleagues stands in Central Park in New York.
In 1930 imports of Siberian Huskies ended, when Russia closed its borders. However, that was the year that the American Kennel Club recognized the breed. It wasn’t until 1939 that its neighbor, Canada, registered its first Siberian Husky, although they then called Arctic Huskies. It took until 1991 for the term Siberian Husky to first be used.
The breed began to grow in popularity in the 1930s. This was partly due to Seppala moving his kennel of Huskies to New England, in partnership with Elizabeth Rickers, and they began to show and race their dogs in the Northeast region. In addition, in 1933, Rear Admiral Richard E Byrd used around 50 Siberian Huskies to assist with his expedition, Operation Highjump, to travel the 16,000-mile coast of Antarctica. During World War II, Siberian Huskies played a key role in the US Army’s Arctic Search and Rescue Unit.
The sled dogs that the Siberian Husky are descended from were believed to have become extinct but in 2006, after visiting the homelands of the Chukchi, Benedict Allen wrote in Geographical magazine that the breed was still alive.