Time is of the essence for a group hoping to preserve an historic building in Nome.
They had to raise enough money to move the long-neglected residence outside the city by July 1 or it was scheduled to be demolished. Money to cover moving cost is available, but its fate remains in limbo.
Why is saving that home so important?
Time was also of the essence for the man who lived in that home a century ago. Beating the clock helped him stop a diphtheria epidemic that threatened to wipe out the population. Leonhard Seppala’s dog team covered the distance from Nome to Shaktoolik in record time. Also ahead of schedule was the team bringing vital vials of serum from Nenana, shipped by special train from the Alaska Railroad Hospital in Anchorage.
Seppala was still en route to Nulato to meet Henry Ivanof on Feb. 1 when his team sped past a sled with tangled dogs. Ivanof hailed him and handed over the precious package. Seppala immediately turned around and sped back across Norton Sound. Stopping only once to feed his dogs and rest for a scant six hours, he continued to Golovin where he handed off the life-saving serum to Gunnar Kassan. Kassan made the final leg to Nome, safely delivering 300,000 units of the anti-toxin, enough to treat two more than the 28 patients desperately awaiting its arrival.
That brief summary shrouds a tale of extreme drama, danger and despair.
The first cases showed up in December of 1924 but were misdiagnosed as tonsillitis. Later the illnesses were found to be the dreaded and deadly diphtheria. The Nome hospital’s supply of serum was outdated. A new shipment had failed to make the last northbound ship before winter closed the port. An epidemic threatened the entire population with several deaths already occurring.
Word of the plight was sent to Gov. Scott Cordelle Bone in Juneau and Territorial Health Department officials. They debated whether to attempt to send relief via new-fangled aeroplanes or use dog teams. Two government aircraft had been dismantled and stored for the winter, their pilots both Outside. Private pilots volunteered, but their planes had open cockpits and engines were cooled by water. Since temperatures registered 80 below zero and winds were in excess of 60 miles an hour, airplanes were discounted.
A plan was devised to take a supply of serum from the railroad hospital in Anchorage by train to Nenana. There it would be met by a series of mushers from villages along the westward route. Teams would start from both ends, meeting in Nulato.
Seppala was the obvious choice to cover the longest and most dangerous stretch across Norton Sound.
Having won three All-Alaska Sweepstakes races a decade earlier, he was best acquainted with the route. Going over the frozen Sound was risky and the veteran dog driver could be counted on to be the best judge whether to cross that way or take an extra day to go overland.
Seppala left Nome on Jan. 27, driving his team of 20 dogs. Togo, a 12-year-old Siberian, was in the lead. They traveled the 126 miles as far as Shaktoolik, making good time and expecting to stop to rest at Nulato before the musher with the serum arrived there. It was outside of Shaktoolik that Ivanof hailed Seppala, saying he had the serum.
Without hesitation, Seppala turned around and began to retrace his trail. Arriving at Isaac’s Point at 8 p.m., he stopped to rest the dogs and himself. He departed at 2 a.m., the winds blowing savagely and the thermometer reading 80 below. He arrived at Golovin and handed over the serum to Charlie Olson. Olson in turn passed the package to Kassan.
Seppala’s approach to Golovin involved driving the dogs up Little Mt. McKinley, a 5,000-foot steep incline that is a real challenge even under ideal conditions. It was more than the aging Togo could endure, leaving him so worn that he would never race again. Seppala and his team, though, had justified the faith placed in them by the organizers of the Serum Run.
When Kassan arrived at Point Safety at 3 a.m. on the morning of Feb. 2, Ed Rohn, the next in line to make the final run to Nome, was sound asleep. Rather than spend time getting Rohn up and dressed and his team fed and harnessed, Kassan elected to make the final dash himself. He pulled up on Front Street at 5:30 a.m. Witnesses said he collapsed after patting his lead dog, Balto, and uttering, “Damn fine dog.”
Kassan’s double shift had also been challenging. At one point his sled overturned, spilling the serum into the snow. He removed his gloves to dig through the snow while searching and retrieving it, sustaining frostbite in doing so.
Seppala, born Sept. 14, 1877, in Skibotn, Norway, met Jafet Lindeberg in 1899, during the latter’s visit to their homeland.
The president of the Pioneer Mining Company and one of the “Three Lucky Swedes” who discovered gold on Anvil Creek, Lindeberg was four years older than Seppala. He offered the younger man a job and loaned him money for passage to Nome.
Dog teams were used to move people and freight during winter months and Seppala was assigned to care for and drive them. He had an affinity for it and came to love the dogs. Lindeberg bought several Siberian pups to present to Roald Amundsen on his planned visit to Nome in 1913; the dogs were given to Seppala after Amundsen’s trip was cancelled.
That became the start of Seppala’s kennel where he started his own line of Siberian Huskies. Seppala and his partner, Elizabeth Ricker of Poland Springs, Maine, were instrumental in the Siberian breed being recognized by the American Kennel Club. Millions of them around the world are related to Togo and Balto.
Smaller than the dogs raised by Alaska Natives, when the Siberians were introduced by Scottish nobleman Charles “Fox” Maule Ramsay they were disparagingly called “Siberian rats.”
A team of Siberians in the first All-Alaska Sweepstakes race in 1908 surprised everyone by coming in third. The next year, three teams entered by Ramsay placed first, second and fourth. Seppala himself won in 1915, 1916 and 1917. He won many other races and took part in the 1932 Olympics sled dog demonstrations.
Balto, the leader in Kassan’s team, was actually owned by Seppala. The widespread publicity given to Kassan and Balto was a disheartening slight to the real heroes of the event, Seppala and Togo. Their recognition was to come posthumously. Togo was retired and lived two more years with Seppala’s kennel partner in Maine. Seppala and his wife, Constance, moved to Seattle. He died there in 1967, five years after a return visit to Alaska at the invitation of renowned news commentator Lowell Thomas.
Efforts to move and restore the home to serve as a museum are being made by a non-profit corporation established by Urtha Lenharr, a retired teacher and dog musher. He is president, Jon Van Zyle vice-president, Nona Safra treasurer, Phillip Dunne historian, Jona Van Zyle media director, and Theresa Daily communications director. Their Web site, where donations can be made, is found at www.leonhardseppalahouseoproject.com.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com. To reach Lee Jordan, email: email@example.com.