The Great Race of Mercy

In the winter of 1925, a diphtheria epidemic threatened the Arctic village of Nome, Alaska, a crisis too terrible to imagine. An outbreak could kill most of the region’s population of 10.000. They needed antitoxin and the dog sled race from Nenana to Nome that brought medicine became the founding of Iditarod.

In January 1925, when two children had died of diphtheria, and there were 20 confirmed diagnoses and 50 possible cases, the impending crisis became clear. Dr. Welch in Nome ordered a quarantine, but diphtheria was so contagious that many people were likely already exposed and he knew more cases would appear. The village’s supply of antitoxin was not enough and it had expired. Not knowing if the expired antitoxin would work or if it might actually cause harm, Dr. Welch hesitated to use it. To save lives, fresh diphtheria antitoxin was the only hope.

On January 22, 1925, Dr. Welch sent dozens of telegrams pleading for help to find and deliver antitoxin. The closest large supply of diphtheria antitoxin was to be found in Anchorage, hundreds of miles away. Diphtheria causes the throat to become blocked and makes breathing very difficult. Without treatment, death by suffocation is very likely, especially for young Native children with no immunity to this “white man’s disease”.

The Iditarod historic trails

But how could they get the antitoxin to Nome? There were no roads or railways, air service was unavailable, and ships could not reach the town because of the sea ice.

The only way in was overland via the Iditarod Trail, also known as the Seward-to-Nome Mail Trail. This crisis made newspaper and radio headlines all across America.


After weighing all possible solutions, Alaska’s Territorial Governor Scott Bone approved a relay of the 20 best mail carrier mushers (sled dog drivers) and 150 dogs along the 1085 kilometer long Nenana-to-Nome Trail, a trip that usually took 15 to 20 days.

The lifesaving race

Gunnar Kaasen and Balto became media celebrities, and a statue of Balto was erected in Central Park in New York City in 1925, where it has become one of the most popular tourist attractions.

On January 27, one of the story’s heroes, “Wild” Bill Shannon, picked up the package of antitoxin at the nearest station that could be reached by train, Nenana, and began the journey. Teams of mushers travelled day and night, enduring blizzards and temperatures of minus 50 degrees Celsius, handing off the package to fresh teams.

The Norwegian immigrant Leonhard Seppala’s team, with lead dog Togo, covered 147 kilometers of the most dangerous part of the route, and another Norwegian immigrant, Gunnar Kaasen, with lead dog Balto, finished the lifesaving race with a leg of 85 kilometers reaching Nome on February 2nd.

This Great Race of Mercy was completed in a record 5 days and 7 hours! Just two weeks later, after the diphtheria antitoxin was given to the infected children, the quarantine was lifted.

At least five children died during the outbreak. However, the collective efforts of hundreds of people to deliver the diphtheria antitoxin prevented the deaths of many other children in Nome and the surrounding areas.


This year’s Iditarod start on 4 Avenue in Anchorage. Photo: Pam Wolfe

Since 1973, the Iditarod Trail Race has been run annually in memory of this original sled dog relay, with participants from all over the world – both men and women. A ceremonial start takes place in Anchorage in March every year and is followed by the official restart in Willow, a city in the south central region of the state.

The trail goes through a harsh landscape of tundra and spruce forests, over hills and mountain passes, and across rivers. The teams frequently race through blizzards causing whiteout conditions, freezing temperatures and gale force winds which can cause the wind chill to go as low as minus 73 °C.

The current fastest winning record was set in 2011 by Alaska’s own John Quinaq Baker with a time of 8 days, 19 hours, 46 minutes and 39 seconds. After 16 years of trying he finally succeeded, following his vision: Dream, try, win. A vision that he encourages all Natives in Alaska to pursue, by pulling together like a dog sledge team and to speak with one voice to be heard. Baker has spent the last 13 years visiting schools in rural Alaska speaking about establishing a dream and pursuing it – being a role model for the up-growing Native generation.

John Quinak Baker, winner of the 2011 Iditarod race, is a much used keynote speaker (Photo: HNS)

The Iditarod is regarded as a symbolic link to the early history of the state of Alaska and is connected to many traditions commemorating the legacy of dog mushing. This year’s race was won by Mitch Seavey.

By Heidi Nesttun-Sunde, April 2013