When a deadly disease gripped an Alaskan town, a dog saved the day – but history hailed another

A new movie recounts an act of heroism in the midst of an outbreak. Here, star Willem Dafoe describes putting a face to the man at its core – and, almost a century on, why Togo finally gives one underdog its due.

Tuesday, 19 May 2020,
By Simon Ingram
Leonhard Seppala with his sled dogs, ca. 1925. Togo (far left) and Seppala are the subject of a ...

Leonhard Seppala with his sled dogs, ca. 1925. Togo (far left) and Seppala are the subject of a new film chronicling the 'serum run' of 1925. 

Photograph by Carrie McLain Museum / Alaska Stock

IT SOUNDS like something Jack London would make up. In the teeth of winter, a deadly disease strikes the children of a tiny Alaskan gold-rush town – pinned between the frozen sea, and a snow-swamped wilderness. The residents’ only hope: a sketchy plan to relay vials of treatment from a distant railhead hundreds of miles over mountains, across frozen inlets and through a storm. By dog sled. 

But the fable is no fiction. The 1925 Serum Run, as it’s known to those who know it, was an event of enough significance to merit a statue in New York’s Central Park – a space it shares with 29 other artistic commemorations, amongst them renderings of Christopher Columbus, the characters of Shakespeare and Alice in Wonderland, and a memorial to John Lennon. 

It is a statue of a dog, burly of build and heroic of poise, which children love to climb. To those who see it as more than an objective, it’s a testimony to loyalty, tenacity and duty for the greater good. The name of the dog, carved into the base of the statue, says Balto. It should probably say something else.

This story of somewhat misappropriated heroism – and one that is the very definition of triumph over toilsome odds – forms the foundation of Togo, a new Disney+ Original Movie that tells a familiar story, but with some unfamiliar names. One is that of the eponymous hound that perhaps deserves to be the one cast in bronze and clambered on; the other is his owner, a Norwegian immigrant and failed gold prospector-turned dog breeder named Leonhard Seppala.

(The Walt Disney Company is majority owner of National Geographic partners.)

The statue of Balto in New York's Central Park. While the plaque dedicates the installation to the 'endurance, fidelity and intelligence' of the sled dogs of the serum run, the canine inspiration is unambiguous. The artist was Frederick Roth, and Balto himself was present at its unveiling in 1925. 

Photograph by Antoine Boureau / Photononstop / Alamy

Neither name is known enough, not least to Willem Dafoe – the actor who signed up to play Seppala in what would be an elemental step into the world of a man he was yet to know. “I knew the basic story of the serum run,” he told National Geographic UK. “The story of Leonhard Seppala and Togo, not so much. Usually when people know the story they know Balto.” The question is, why?

Terror in isolation

High on the western coast of Alaska on the Bering Sea, Nome is a frontier town built on gold and the fur trade. Founded in 1901, it’s closer to Siberia than the state’s biggest city, Anchorage. And this remote position would present a nightmare scenario when in 1925, a disease began to grip the town’s children. It was too late by the time officials discovered it wasn't a severe bout of tonsillitis; it was diphtheria. 

A contagious bacterial infection that attacks the upper respiratory system and causes tissue swelling in the throat, diphtheria can be deadly. So it proved in Nome, when in late December, two Iñupiaq children succumbed to the disease when it was found the tiny hospital’s only stock of antitoxin had expired. By January 24, four children were known to have died – with more presumed in the surrounding native Alaskan communities. In a telegram to Anchorage, Nome’s doctor Curtis Welch implemented a quarantine, and sent out a call for a million units to be sent – asserting that an ‘epidemic of diphtheria is almost inevitable.’ 

Nome in 1916. Nome's population exploded in 1899 when gold was found, and became a city in 1901, with around 12,500 residents. 

Photograph by Creative Commons / Wikimedia

Front Street, Nome, in modern times. The town is the finish for the famous Iditarod Race, which was in part inspired by the serum run of 1925. When the gold rush subsided, the population quelled and was around 1,000 at the time of the diphtheria epidemic – though an estimated 9,000 more Alaska natives lived in at-risk settlements outside the town. 

Photograph by P.A. Lawrence, LLC. / Alamy

The fact this outbreak wasn't unprecedented made it all the more terrifying. “Within Alaska history, the 1925 diphtheria outbreak in Nome was but one in a series of area and Alaska-wide epidemics,” says David Reamer, a historian and writer for The Anchorage Daily News – who has written extensively about diseases in the state’s history. “Nome and the surrounding Native villages were by far the Alaska communities hardest hit by the 1918 to 1919 influenza pandemic – the ‘Spanish flu.’ Hundreds died in the region, including babies who froze to death still held by their mothers who had succumbed to the influenza,” he says. “This horror, only seven years prior, was well within living memory – and certainly in the minds of residents as they watched the diphtheria spread among their children.”

Amidst some of the worst winter conditions for decades and temperatures at a 20-year low, it became clear to the town authorities that transport of Alaska's small supply of antitoxin by conventional means would be too slow or impossible before the disease ravaged the town. The port was frozen, and planes couldn’t operate safely in the cold, let alone land. Without any other way of bridging the formidable 674-mile gap between the railhead at Nenana and Nome – a route that typically took mail couriers a month – they turned to a dog breeder and champion musher named Leonhard Seppala. 

Seppala’s own story spanned many miles. A Norwegian immigrant, ‘Sepp’ had originally travelled to Alaska to prospect for gold, under the employ of a gold mine. Disillusioned by the work, he became its superintendent – tending water ditches and ferrying freight and passengers between camps by dog sled, and a ‘pupmobile’ designed to run on the rail track. 

“It’s a character from a certain time in history, says Dafoe, whose turn in Togo as the physically-uncanny Seppala has won wide acclaim. “He reminds me of men I knew in my life, like my father. People said he was a very pragmatic guy. Not taciturn, just pragmatic. It’s that frontier spirit – you’ve got to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, you’re self-reliant, you’ve got to learn things. [And] you’ve got to take care of yourself and not take charity from anyone else.” 

Stimulated by the work and tasked by default with the training and upkeep of the mine’s dogs, Seppala found his calling. Thanks to a connection to the mine’s entrepreneurial proprietor, Seppala was commissioned to train and condition a team of sled dog puppies for an attempt on the North Pole from Alaska, by Norwegian Explorer Roald Amundsen. As the shadow of World War One loomed, the expedition was abandoned – and the dogs intended for the expedition were gifted to Seppala.    

Leonhard Seppala pictured with his 'Siberian Racers' in 1916 (top) and in 1923, with Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. Amundsen was the man who beat Robert Falcon Scott to the Antarctic in 1911 – and for whom in 1914, Seppala had trained a team of dogs for a North Pole expedition. The expedition was cancelled, and Seppala was gifted the dogs. 

Photograph by Creative Commons

Competitive sledding was a natural collateral activity to anyone who worked with dogs – both the Alaskan malamute, or husky (a corruption of esky, short for Eskimo) and the slighter Siberian dogs brought to Alaska by the Chukchi in 1908. Prized for their endurance and intelligence, the dogs’ stamina and propulsive gait made them the perfect engine for crossing difficult terrain. The dogs intended for Amundsen were Siberian huskies, and now – in possession of his own dog team – Sepp began to compete in Alaska’s competitive races. Beginning in 1915, Seppala won three consecutive All Alaska Sweepstakes, a 408-mile clearway run from Nome to Candle, following the route of the telegraph line. Seppala’s wins were credited to his lighter-framed dogs – ‘Siberian rats’, as other mushers would sorely describe them. That, and the instincts of the dog in the lead harness, which for Seppala, would soon belong to one in particular.  

The original underdog

Named – eventually – after Heihachiro Togo, a heroic Japanese admiral, Togo was born in 1913, and in the sled dog stakes didn’t initially show much promise. With a mottled colour that made his coat appear grubby, he was nursed by Seppala’s wife Constance as a puppy due to a throat condition: circumstances that may have resulted in both his smaller build, wilful disposition and a deep-rooted loyalty to his owner. Togo would frequently escape confinement to race after Seppala when he was conducting training or errands. Considered a nuisance, when given away at seven months old to a female friend as a companion, again Togo escaped and returned home. At this point Seppala noticed a back-handed virtue of the dog: his determination, and knack for finding the shortest distance between two points

Norwegian Leonhard Seppala was a failed gold prospector who turned his hand to the training and rearing of sled dogs. In Togo he is played by Academy Award-nominated American actor Willem Dafoe.

Photograph by Alamy / Disney

Dafoe, whose performance in Togo as the physically-uncanny Seppala has won wide acclaim, believes the Norwegian saw something of himself in the dog. “Seppala was quite determined. He was physically small, he was an immigrant, and he had some disappointment in his life.” He says. “So that kind of paralleled his projections onto Togo, who was kind of a non-starter. He was too small, he was unassuming, he was undisciplined, he was basically dubbed a failure. Maybe he did identify with that.”

Seppala, though perhaps a poor gold prospector, certainly eventually found his own winning niche. “I think it’s always very helpful when you’re playing a character who has a very central action, or expertise, or passion, or profession,” says Dafoe. “I always feel like the way into characters is learning how to do what they do, or address yourself to their mindset in the most practical way that you can.” 

For Togo, this meant taking the reins – and gaining physical insight into Seppala’s chosen profession. “You think, that looks pretty simple… a guy sitting on the back and the dogs do all the pulling…” he laughs. “But it’s a bit more complicated than that. It requires knowing the dogs, finessing the tension on the line, dealing with the discomfort, the cold, about balance, about reading the terrain – it’s about lots of things. It really takes a tough character.” 

The real Togo (left) lives on in the bloodline of Seppala Siberian huskies – where owners commonly attempt to trace their dogs back to their heroic ancestor. One such is the dog featured in the film, Diesel (right) a 5 year-old Siberian husky who was a direct descendent of Togo. 

Photograph by Creative Commons / Disney

Tired of Togo’s constant escapes, Seppala eventually let him run with the team – first at the back, then further up the line until eventually the lead, where the dog hit his stride. In Gay and Laney Salisbury’s The Cruellest Miles, Seppala is quoted as saying that in Togo he ‘had found a natural-born leader… something I had tried for years to breed.’ The two would become inseparable – and in the coming years on various expeditions on the trail, would save each other’s lives.

The ‘Great Run of Mercy’

By the time the diphtheria outbreak struck, Seppala was now famous across Alaska as a musher, known as the “king of the trail” – with the wily, diminutive Togo his equally venerated lead dog. On the evening of January 24, 1925, Seppala was called on by Nome’s authorities to spearhead what would, in the hyperbole of the many subsequent headlines, become known as ‘the Great Run of Mercy.’ With the 1300 mile round-trip from Nome to Nenana unrealistic for one team, the vials of diphtheria antitoxin, the only 300,000 units in Alaska, would be relayed by sled dog teams from Nenana to Nome via the mid-point of Nulato – both sections still a round trip of over 600 miles.   

The dangers were considerable. With Seppala charged with the most treacherous sections of the intercepting leg from Nome, he would be forced to negotiate the coastline of Norton Sound – with the chilling nickname ‘the ice factory’. A day-saving shortcut across the frozen sound was the most hazardous section of the trip, beset with high winds and unstable ice floes that were razor-sharp underfoot. It was a leg most knew – including Seppala – that only he, with Togo’s instincts for danger and terrain, could manage. But even this was a tall order: Togo by this point was 12 years old. 

Seppala set off on January 27th. In the event, as the outbreak and conditions worsened, unbeknownst to Seppala the already long-odds plans were changed en route– often at considerable risk of a missed rendezvous at the rustic cabins, or ‘roadhouses,’ which were the trail’s only respite. Additional mushers and teams were added to relieve the strain and speed up the transit of the vital medication – ampules, wrapped in fur padding, and sealed in a metal container – as the Nome outbreak worsened. 

The relay from Nenana progressed faster than expected. By chance Seppala intercepted the serum from a musher named Henry Ivanoff outside Shahtoolik – and turned back for Nome in worsening conditions.

“It really takes a tough character.” Willem Dafoe as Leonhard Seppala in Togo. 

Photograph by Disney Enterprises Ltd

“Everyone wants to be useful somewhere. I think this was his moment where he felt this was something he had to try to do.”

Willem Dafoe

Temperatures were in the region of -35 C, with wind-chill a murderous -65 C. Seppala would would often rely on Togo’s instincts when he couldn’t see the way ahead due to spindrift, oncoming wind and deep snow. Due to total exhaustion of both he and his dogs, Seppala was forced to stop at Golovin – with 78 miles left to go to Nome. Since leaving the disease-stricken town, by this point his team had by that point covered a total of 261 miles – including two crossings of Norton Sound on sketchy ice. A musher named Charlie Olsen then ferried the antitoxin to within around 50 miles of Nome, where Gunner Kaasen was waiting with a team of 13 dogs – led by Balto.   

The resulting fame of Balto, along with musher Kaasen was an unfortunate, though unwitting, outcome. 

The 674-mile transit of the antitoxin took five and a half days – a world record, and one watched by a public on tenterhooks. This was emphasised by the recent adoption of the radio by middle America, all of which made the story of the serum run a dipatch-by-distance phenomenon. In Nome, as few as five or as many as seven died – though numbers of Native Alaskans outside the town were not recorded, and probably numbered far higher. Nonetheless, it was clear a far greater toll had been miraculously (and slenderly) avoided. The story became a sensation – and so did its heroes. 

Balto was the dog that led the final leg to Nome and allowed Kaasen to actually deliver the antitoxin, on February 2. A simple look at the mileage would have put any misplaced credit into context: Balto and Fox, with Kaasen, covered either 50, 53 or 55 miles  – sources vary – whereas Seppala, with Togo, carried the serum for 91 miles over much more technical and hazardous ground. In total, door-to-door Togo ran 261 miles; Balto, just over 100. 

Gunnar Kaasen with Balto, the lead dog for the final 50-mile transit of the diphtheria antitoxin to Nome, in 1925. As the final couriers who delivered the serum, both became celebrities – with Balto inspiring a statue, a number of books, a dramatised documentary and an animated film (below). 

Photograph by Brown Brothers / Wikimedia Commons

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Photograph by Alamy

But the public wanted a lightning rod – and being the photogenic shore upon which the wave of Nome’s relief fell, the press ensured Kaasen and Balto were it. Theirs were the images that graced the front pages of the newspapers, and their names that passed into legend – somewhat eclipsing not only Togo and Seppela, but the 18 other people and some 150 dogs who played a part on the relay, and some 150 dogs. “In broader terms, Balto's fame obscures the other mushers,” says David Reamer, “including many Alaska Natives whose contributions are far more forgotten.” 

A dog finally gets his due

Kaasen and Balto’s leg wasn’t without heroism: though modest in miles, conditions were so bad Kaasen, who was sledding through the night, could barely see the dogs. At one point his sled flipped – necessitating a bare-hands search in the snow for the antitoxin package, for which Kaasen suffered frostbite.   

Nevertheless, the competitive Seppala wasn’t happy at the adulation piled on Balto. Though he owned, reared and trained the dog Kaasen used in his team, Seppala maintained Balto was a ‘scrub dog’ in comparison to his beloved Togo – and that anyway Balto had been a joint lead on those final miles with a dog named Fox. The New York Times furthered the confusion in 1927, when it reportedBalto Not Nome Hero Dog’ – before naming Fox as the true hero of the Serum run. With no mention of Togo at all, the rest of the brief report was dedicated to the supposed whereabouts of Balto. 

The latter had recently taken a cruel turn. Following the serum run, in addition to his Central Park statue, amongst much else Balto was presented with the key (shaped like a bone) to the city of Los Angeles, starred in a film, and toured the lower US states to an adoring public. But when Kaasen tired of the melee and wanted to return to Alaska, Balto and his fellow dogs were sold – by whom isn’t clear – to a vaudeville sideshow. Here he endured poor treatment until a fundraising effort secured care for the dog at Cleveland Zoo, where he lived out the remainder of his life. 

While diminutive, the 2001 statue of Togo in Seward Park, New York, gives the dog a presence in the same city that is home to the much grander statue of Balto.   

Photograph by Disney, Inc

Truth vs fable

Given Balto's name has enjoyed fame, books, statues and an animated feature film – in which the dog was voiced by Kevin Bacon – Alaskan historian David Reamer is pleased to see the new film go some way to set the record straight. “The movie manages to correct a historical injustice without becoming bogged down in minutiae,” he says. “The story certainly didn't need any additional drama.” 

The serum run also inspired the most celebrated dog sled race in the world, the Iditarod – which covers a similar route between Nome and Nenana, before continuing south to Anchorage. Togo’s bloodline continues in the Seppala Siberian huskies, while the dog himself today lives at the headquarters of the Iditarod in Wasilla where the 107-year old hound – his fur was mounted by Seppala after his death – stands in a glass case. Both dog and race hark back to an era of Alaskan history where the sled dog was the key to humans’ survival in the wilderness. (See vintage photos of sled dogs.)

“Alaskan literature is filled with stories about natural-born lead dogs like Togo… with an almost uncanny ability to size up obstacles.” Wrote Gay and Laney Salisbury in The Cruellest Miles. “Without such dogs, many Alaskans believe, Alaska could not have developed.”

In addition, the run itself had another legacy – one that undoubtedly saved many thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of lives in the ensuing generation. “At a time when supplying the much needed antitoxin was simply not feasible via air or sea – coupled with the determination and tenacity to save the children of Nome – the story of the dog sled relay propelled the necessity and importance of vaccination,” says Dr Basil Aboul Enin of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “It’s a story that continues to echo in the annals of public health history.” 

“It’s a story that continues to echo in the annals of public health history.” A scene from Togo.

Photograph by Chris Large / Disney Enterprises

The issue around Balto's Central Park statue also continues to echo. A Change.org petition to replace Balto's statue with one of Togo was started in late 2019. Elsewhere in New York, a small 2001 statue of Togo that stands in New York's Seward Park – named in honour of the U.S. Secretary of State, who purchased Alaska from Russia in 1868 – was recently relocated to a more prominent position, as part of a rejuvenation of the space.  

As for the movie, Willem Dafoe is confident the tale of Seppala and Togo goes further than simply righting the usurping of an underdog that got way out of hand. “It’s going to mean different things to different people, like anything. I guess the main thing is about opening up to where you fit in the world,” he says. “The interdependence between us and nature, us and animals… so it leads to kind of a better way of living and a greater understanding of what we’re here for.”

“Everyone wants to be useful somewhere. And I think this was his moment where he felt like this was something he had to try to do. I think he had no choice.”

 

Togo is streaming now on Disney+