History of the 1925 Nome Serum Run

Balto - A Capsule History

Above: Balto just after the 1925 Nome Serum Run.

Named after Samuel Johannesen Balto, a famous Norwegian “Sami” (an Arctic herding people who live in northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia).

Born: 1919 (exact date unknown.  There are no historical records which conclusively prove this which are available to the public.)

Died: March 14, 1933

Owner: Norwegian Leonhard Seppala (pronounced LEH-nerd SEP-luh), a breeder and racer of Siberian dogs from the Chukchi Inuit stock of Siberia. He also trained dogs and mushers. Was employed by Norwegian Jafet Lindeberg’s (name pronounced "YAH-feht LIN-deh-berg") Pioneer Gold Mining Company (Jafet Lindeberg was one of the “Three Lucky Swedes” who discovered gold at Anvil Creek in 1898,
near Nome).

Sire (father): Unknown.

Dam (mother): Unknown.

Offspring: None. Balto was neutered (castrated) at approximately six months of age.

Breed: Jet black Siberian husky ( and of the Chukchi Inuit Siberian tribe’s stock, with white “socks”, “bib”, and partial white markings on belly and tip of the muzzle, which advanced with age (including white markings around the eyes when he was old). Eyes were dark brown.

Details of Death: Partially deaf and blind, and suffering from canine arthritis in his rear legs, Balto was being cared for by the team’s keeper (in the Cleveland Brookside Zoo), “Captain” Curley Wilson. There were concerns about his failing health in 1933, until a kindly veterinarian, Dr. R.R. Powell (a member and trustee of the Cleveland, Ohio Balto Committee), offered to ease Balto’s suffering. Wilson accepted for the zoo, and carefully moved Balto over to Dr. Powell’s animal hospital. Powell insisted on caring for Balto free of charge, stating it was an honor to care for him in his last hours. On Tuesday, March 14th, 1933, he injected Balto with a drug to “put him to sleep”. Balto died at 2:15 P.M., under the loving care of Dr. Powell and Curley Wilson. His body was stuffed and mounted by a staff taxidermist at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, where it stands (with Balto’s original lead) to this day.

- Unlike Togo, Balto ran more true to the usual size for Siberian huskies at the time...about 55-60 pounds. So Balto was larger than Togo. He was, however, not considered breeding material by his owner, Leonhard Seppala, as he did not "cut" a racing profile. And having a racing body was THE measure of breeding material back then. Racing was one of THE recreational pastimes back then, and much money was to be made in it. Balto, however, had a body that was a little boxy...and a barrel chest. This gave his forelegs the illusion of being "bowed" (some photos show that more than others). Of course, it also made him very strong. However, all of this doomed Balto (in the eyes of Seppala) as a lead dog prospect. He was neutered at six months of age, and assigned only to working on the freighting teams for the Hammon Consolidated Gold Fields mining company (for which Seppala worked as an employee). And, until the serum run (and thanks only to Gunnar Kaasen), he never got a chance to be a lead dog even in the freighting work.  Despite this, Balto proved himself quite clever and disciplined on the trail during the run, and was credited by Kaasen for saving the lives of the team on more than one occasion (like Togo's team, Balto's faced the worst of the blizzard which was pounding the region during the last few days of the run...and Balto's team did it almost entirely in the dark).

- After the team's hurried arrival in Nome, on the early morning of February 2nd (5:30 A.M. local time), Kaasen halted the team in front of the Miners & Merchants Bank on Front Street.  Dazed, exhausted, and nearly overwhelmed from the ordeal, he stumbled up to the front of the team, where a few witnesses said he collapsed, muttering (about Balto) "Damn fine dog".

- By late February of that year (1925), an enticing offer had come into Nome, to Kaasen's attention, to bring the team down to the United States to appear in a movie about their experiences.  Gaining clearance from Seppala (who was angry with all the attention Balto was getting from the press, while Togo was getting practically none), Kaasen traveled south to Seward with his wife Anna, and the dog team (including their sled), where they boarded the steamship Alameda, bound for Seattle, Washington. 

Above: Balto, with Anna and Gunnar Kaasen, on the steamship Alameda, docked
in Seattle, Washington in late February, 1925.

- Hollywood producer Sol Lesser met them a few weeks later, and quickly organized the shoot for his movie Balto's Race To Nome (Balto would apparently also appear in a few other short movies too:  While the team was in the employ of Lesser, they were housed in the kennels of the studio where Lesser worked.  There are some stories which state that Balto, like the Kaasens, received his own luxurious suite in Los Angeles' Biltmore Hotel!

Above: Balto, a photograph puported to be of the dog in his own suite at
the Los Angeles, California Biltmore Hotel.

- After the movie, Sol Lesser kept the team in his employ and sent them on a promotional tour of the west coast for the movie.  Then-famous Hollywood actress Mary Pickford sat with Balto on the steps of City Hall in Los Angeles as the city's mayor placed a wreath of flowers around his neck.  On page 26 of the book The Adventures of Balto: The Untold Story of Alaska's Famous Iditarod Sled Dog, by Patricia Chargot (©2006, Publication Consultants, Anchorage), it says that the actress was Clara Horton.

- During the west coast tour, Kaasen caught wind of an announcement, by the New York City Commissioner of Parks, that a monument was to be dedicated in Central Park (in the city) to the honor of the sled dogs and mushers who took part in the serum run, and that it would be topped by a bronze statue of Balto (to be designed by the famous animal sculptor Frederick Roth).  Kaasen finished up with the commitments to Sol Lesser (which ended in a pay dispute between the two) and, under the auspices of a new tour promoter, took the team on a nine-month vaudeville circuit of the United States, to the delight of the American citizens who had read about Balto in the newspapers.  The east-bound leg of the tour ended in New York City where, on December 16th, the statue and monument were unveiled in a solemn ceremony.  Kaasen had Balto with him, and appeared in his squirrel-fur coat and wolf-fur pants.  Balto was well-behaved and quiet during the ceremony, until two other dogs broke from the crowd and rushed at him.  Kaasen, however, managed to keep the dogs from fighting, and order was quickly restored.  As stated in the book The Cruelest Miles: The Heroic Story Of Dogs And Men In A Race Against An Epidemic, by Gay & Laney Salisbury (©2003, W.W. Norton & Company, New York), "after the unveiling, Kaasen reluctantly left the dogs behind with the promoter who had bought the team and traveled back to Alaska through Canada."

- However, according to Patricia Chargot's book The Adventures of Balto, almost a year after the ceremony, Kaasen was still with the vaudeville promoter and the tour and, in December of 1926, was approached by the famous Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, a friend of Leonhard Seppala's, at a theater in Chicago, who told him that it was time to get out of Seppala's way.  Kaasen, unsure of what to do with the team, left them in the hands of the vaudeville tour promoter, and returned with his wife to Alaska, and went back to work.  The promoter, in the meanwhile, returned to Los Angeles with the team (and the sled) in tow...and sold them off to sideshow man Sam Houston, who owned a small "dime-a-look" museum of oddities and curiosities in the city.  There, for several months, the team languished in a dark and stuffy room, attached to their harnesses and the gang line, neglected and even abused.  For a dime, visitors could wander back to the room (which only had one small window shedding outside light down upon the miserable dogs) and have a look at these heroes.  For a few months in early 1926, the team was stuck in this miserable state, until a curious passerby, Cleveland (Ohio) businessman George Kimble, noticed the advertisement of the team as an attraction in the museum, and went in to have a look.  Seeing the team in their miserable, deteriorated condition, sullen and neglected as they were, he took pity on them, fearing that they would soon pine away and die in that place.  He struck up a deal with Houston, who offered to allow him to have the team for $2,000.00 (which, in 1926, was a great deal of money).  Kimble didn't have the money on-hand, and Houston pressured him, claiming he had other interested parties he was eager to sell them to (because he claimed the team was just not raking in sufficient money for him).  There were seven dogs at the time: Balto, Fox, Sye, Billy, Tillie, Old Moctoc, and Alaska Slim, and their original sled, gang line, leads and harnesses.  I have yet to see any verifiable, documentable record as to the fates other six dogs of the original team total of thirteen.  Again, in Gay & Laney Salisbury's book The Cruelest Miles, it states ONLY that "after the circuit of vaudeville acts in the states, the dogs had ended up in a sideshow in Los Angeles.  [skipped a bit here]  On March 19, 1927, Balto and six other teammates -- Fox, Sye, Billy, Tillie, Moctoc, and Alaska Slim -- were given a hero's welcome as they paraded through downtown Cleveland.  (The six other serum run teammates had already died or been sold.)".  There is NO conclusive proof, in that latter statement, as to the precise disposition of the other six dogs.  Houston gave him just two weeks to come up with the money.  Kimble rushed back to Cleveland and immediately began a campaign to raise money, through the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper.  The news spread around the city, and then across the country, like wildfire.  Children donated school milk money, and adults were passing around the hat at work.  Businesses, kennel clubs, hotels and other places donated generously and, by the tenth day of the campaign, Kimble had the money he needed.

- Contacting Houston, Kimble arranged the deal, and rescued the team.  They were cleaned up, fed, and taken by train back to Cleveland.  A committee, which had been created to help Kimble secure the purchase of the team (and organize the campaign), arranged for a parade through the downtown section of the city.  The dogs, now back in good health, were paraded through town as heroes, their sled propped up on wheels, and driven by  former gold prospector Mary Berne.  The team was marched to its new home at the Cleveland Brookside Zoo (now the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo).  For weeks, thousands of people came to see them in their new semi-circular enclosure, and they lived out the remainder of their lives in comfort.  As the years wore on, one-by-one the team members began dying off (Fox, Old Moctoc, Billy, Tillie and Alaska Slim were the first).  Word was announced, in March of 1933, that Balto was ailing (suffering from partial blindness and canine arthritis).  He was put to sleep on March 14th (see "Details of Death", above).  Sye, the last remaining member of the team, spent the next year alone, pacing the enclosure and often howling for his fellow team members.  He died the following year.

- Balto's body was stuffed and mounted, and displayed in the Cleveland Museum of Natural History (see "Details of Death", above), where it stands to this day (earlier information I had here referred to his lead being the original one.  This has turned out to be an error...the lead is not Balto's original one -- Ed.).  The fur has faded, due to long exposure to excessive light, to a deep mahogany-brown, from its original jet black. 

Above: The Balto mount as it is today, in the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

- The enclosure at the Cleveland Brookside Zoo was dismantled shortly after Sye's death.  In its place, a wolf pen was soon built.  Sometime after this, a dual bronze monument was built and dedicated at the zoo, near the wolf pen (where the team's enclosure once stood).  That monument consists of two statues - one of Balto, and the other of Togo. 

Above: An extremely aged Balto being cared for at the Cleveland (Ohio) Brookside Zoo
(now the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo).  This is the last photo of Balto taken while he was
alive.  In it, Doctor W.T. Brinker administers care to the dog while his keeper, "Captain"
Curley Wilson, assists.

Above: The man for whom Balto was named...Samuel Johannesen Balto, a Norwegian
"Sami" (reindeer herder) who was hired by his fellow Norwegian, explorer Fritdjof Nansen,
to accompany him on his expedition to Greenland in 1888.