22 April 2014


Of the 29 statues in Central Park, by far one of the most popular is of a dog named Balto. On any given day you will find a steady line of children (and some adults) eager to climb up and pose for photos with the heroic dog who successfully led a sled team on the final leg of the great 1925 Serum Run to Nome. While many people are familiar with the statue, they may not know the story behind the real Balto's fame.

In January 1925, the small town of Nome, Alaska was hit with a diphtheria outbreak that threatened to turn into an epidemic. Their only hope of stopping the disease was a diphtheria antitoxin but the closest supply was in Anchorage, 1,000 miles away. With Nome's isolated location, wintry conditions, and no available planes, it became clear that the only way to get the serum to the town was by land. It was first sent by train from Anchorage to Nenana; from there, dog sleds took over. A relay totaling 20 mushers and 150 dogs carried the life-saving serum the rest of the 674 miles in blizzard conditions that included strong winds and sub-zero temperatures. 

The real Balto.

Responsible for the second to last leg of the journey was musher Gunnar Kassen and his team with Balto at the lead. The five-year old Siberian Husky hadn’t appeared to be much of a leader in the past but now proved his worth, keeping the team on the trail in whiteout conditions and at one point even saving their lives by preventing them from plunging into the Topkok River. Kassen later said, "Many times I couldn't even see my dogs, so blinding was the gale. I gave Balto, my lead dog, his head and trusted him. He never once faltered. It was Balto who led the way."

When they arrived at their stop, Kassen found the final team asleep so he and his team pushed on and 
at 5:30 am on February 2, 1925, after 53 miles and 20 hours, they successfully arrived in Nome and delivered the serum.

The public, who had been following the story of the “Great Race of Mercy” with bated breath, hailed Kassen and Balto heroes, and they quickly became worldwide celebrities. On December 17, 1925 a statue of Balto, sculpted by Frederick G.R. Roth, was erected in Central Park with a plaque that reads: “Dedicated to the indomitable spirit of the sled dogs that relayed antitoxin six hundred miles over rough ice, across treacherous waters, through Arctic blizzards from Nenana to the relief of stricken Nome in the Winter of 1925.” Both Kassen and Balto were on hand for the unveiling. 

Kassen and his team spent more than a year touring the country on the vaudeville circuit before Kassen returned to Alaska, sadly, without the dogs. They were sold and kept on display at a freak show museum in Los Angeles where in 1927 former prizefighter turned Cleveland businessman George Kimble found them chained up, mistreated, and ill. Outraged, he founded the Balto Fund to raise the necessary $2,000 to purchase the dogs from their current owner and bring them to Cleveland. Within ten days, he had the money and on March 19, 1927, Balto along with Sye, Billy, Tillie, Fox, Old Moctoc, and Alaska Slim arrived in Cleveland where they were welcomed with a parade. They lived out their lives at the Brookside Zoo (now the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo) where Balto died on March 14, 1933 at the age of 14. 

Today, the famed Iditarod Dog Sled Race commemorates the valiant efforts of Balto and the rest of the 1925 rescue teams while at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History his preserved body can be found on display. As for the statue in Central Park, it remains a symbol of the words written on its plaque: "endurance, fidelity, and intelligence." What a grand dog.

Photos of the Balto statue by Michele.

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