It’s January 20th, 1925 in the icebound Alaskan town of Nome.
Doctor Curtis Welch mops his brow as he makes his rounds in the town’s small hospital, a nurse following behind with a notepad and pen. Right now, the hospital is unusually busy with patients, and as the town’s only doctor, it falls on him to treat every one of them.
Doctor Welch steps into a large room and approaches the bed of three-year-old Billy Barnett.
Welch sighs, concerned. He admitted Billy almost two weeks ago for a sore throat and fever. But after numerous treatments, Billy is still sick. Welch pulls a tongue depressor from his pocket and asks Billy to open his mouth.
Welch almost recoils at Billy’s fetid breath but forces himself to look closer because something worrying catches his eye: gray lesions in the back of the throat; a symptom of diphtheria—an extremely contagious disease with a high mortality rate. Doctor Welch quickly turns to the nurse and tells her to get the serum for treating diphtheria from the medicine cabinet.
But the nurse can only find a single while.
Welch’s brow furrows as he swirls the small amount of liquid at the bottom of the bottle. There’s barely enough for even a few doses. He draws some into a syringe, injects it into Billy’s arm… and drops the syringe on a tray. Welch knows they’ll need to order more serum. But the port will be iced up for at least the next five months. The only way in and out of Nome is on snowbound trails—and the nearest settlement of any size is nearly 700 miles away. With a sinking heart, Welch realizes that by the time the serum arrives, hundreds of people might be dead.
Doctor Curtis Welch’s diphtheria diagnosis comes too late for Billy Barnett. Later that evening, the boy passes away, the first confirmed victim of the Nome diphtheria outbreak. But Welch fears he will not be the last. With their town cut off by ice and snow for the next few months, the people of Nome will be forced to secure the life-saving serum they desperately need by relying on man’s best friend. The medicine will be carried to Nome by dog sled in a non-stop relay race that comes to an end on this day, February 1st, 1925.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is February 1st, 1925: The Nome Serum Run.
It’s the evening of January 24th, 1925, four days after the death of Billy Barnett; an emergency meeting of the Nome town council is underway.
Doctor Curtis Welch takes a deep breath and begins to describe the state of the ongoing outbreak. The disease is spreading fast. Since Billy’s death, three more victims have passed away. Doctor Welch has used up his small supply of serum, and though he’s sent for more, he worries it will come too late.
Welch explains that hospitals across the western United States are scouring their pharmacies for serum to send to Nome. But because of the icy conditions, the railroad lines will only be able to transport the medicine to the town of Nenana, 674 miles away. Welch continues, telling the council that they have to figure out some way to get the medicine across the Alaskan wilderness to Nome where it's needed.
One of the men tentatively raises his hand asking about dog sleds. The local Mayor scoffs. He says it takes 25 days for mail to arrive by sled from Nenana.
And that’s true if the sled is filled to the brim with mail. Soon a plan is concocted. If they just carry the serum, it will go faster. And instead of one musher driving the sled, and having to stop to rest his dogs every few hours, they could do a relay with multiple mushers and dog teams to cut down the length of the trip.
Soon, Doctor Welch and the rest of the council are convinced. They agree to do whatever is necessary to prepare a sled relay to depart as soon as the serum arrives in Nenana.
Three days later, at 9 PM on January 27th, 1925, a man named Bill Shannon waits at the Nenana train station. As a professional dog sled musher, Bill is used to ferrying packages and passengers during Alaska’s long winters. But he has never carried a cargo as important as the one he waits for today.
Bill tightens his hood around his face when a train emerges from the darkness and steams toward the platform. It stops with a hiss, and a man climbs down carrying a metal box. He thrusts it into Bill’s hands and tells him to keep it as warm as possible—and good luck.
Bill is the first of the mushers in what comes to be known as the Nome Serum Run. His job is to take the medicine from Nenana to the village of Tolovana, 52 miles away. There, he’ll hand it over to a different musher, who’ll immediately set off for Manley Hot Springs, another 31 miles down the trail. In total, 20 mushers volunteer to take turns carrying the serum 674 miles to Nome. It’ll take them around six days—if they do their job right.
Bill is determined to get this race off to a good start. He hustles to his sled outside the station, where a pack of nine Siberian huskies lounge on the snow. As soon as they see Bill coming, they jump to their feet and start barking, eager to set off on their journey. Bill ties the metal box to the sled and covers it with a thick fur blanket. He then secures the parcel with more ropes, then steps onto the back of his sled, and orders his dogs to mush.
The sled begins to bound down Nenana’s main street. As it does, Bill immediately senses his body temperature starts to drop. Frost forms on his beard. He begins to lose sensation in his fingers and toes. Breathing in the cold air stings his chest. But Bill grips the handles of his sled with resolve. Normally, it would be madness to run huskies overnight in temperatures this low. But Bill knows it's an emergency.
When the flat trail suddenly turns uphill, Bill jumps off the sled and trudges alongside. It helps him keep warm and eases the load for his dogs. But even so, the plunging temperature takes its toll. At 3 AM, Bill briefly pauses at a roadhouse along the trail for a brief rest. But when he steps off the sled, he notices that three of his dogs are coughing up blood. Bill has no choice but to leave them behind and press on.
Eight hours later, at 11 AM, Bill sees in the distance his journey's end: the roadhouse at Tolovana. As he approaches, the front door opens and two men stick their heads out and wave. Bill tries to wave back—but his hand doesn't move. His glove has frozen to the sled. Bill calls for help and the men pry him loose. Then they load the metal box containing the serum onto the next musher’s sled.
As he watches the second musher in the relay set off into the pale light of dawn, Bill finally goes inside for a much-needed rest. He seeks out a mirror, and the sight of his face shocks him. Patches of black on his skin mark where he has been frostbitten. He touches his cheeks, but he can’t feel a thing. Bill shudders. Knowing that in a few hours, as the feeling begins to return, the pain will be excruciating.
Even so, Bill is proud that he has completed the hardest sled run of his life and maybe the most important. But although Bill’s leg of the relay is complete, the serum has traveled only 52 miles and there are still another 622 miles to go.
It’s early afternoon on January 31st, 1925, four days since the Nome Serum Run began, at around 170 miles from Nome.
Champion musher Leonhard Seppala squints into the gloom as his sled races along the trail. Leonhard is a three-time winner of the All-Alaska sled dog championship and universally recognized as the fastest musher in the region. He volunteered to take the longest leg of the journey and lead his sled around Norton Sound, an inlet of the Bering Sea. But first, he has to head to the rendezvous point where he’ll meet one of his fellow relayers, pick up the serum, and set out for Norton Sound on his way to Nome.
As he speeds along the trail, Leonhard spots something up ahead: a sled that’s veered off the track and is now stuck in the snowy terrain. Its dog's bark and snap, their harnesses all tangled together. The stricken musher waves his arms, trying to get Leonhard to stop. But Leonhard can't. He has to get to the rendezvous point. So he keeps his eyes forward and snaps the reins to make sure his dogs go faster. But as he passes the crashed sled, he hears anguished shouts. Leonhard picks out only a few words above the sound of the howling wind and dogs: “The serum! I have it here!”
Leonhard quickly applies the brake and his sled grinds to a halt. He turns to see the other musher approaching, his face a picture of relief. He breathlessly explains that the serum arrived at the rendezvous point before Leonhard did. So the musher came up with a spur-of-the-moment change to the relay. He volunteered to set off with the serum and intercept Leonhard whenever he found him on the trail. But along the way, he crashed in a snowdrift.
Leonhard ruefully shakes his head. The musher’s improvised plan was risky. If Leonhard hadn’t heard the man’s shouts and stopped, he might have missed his pickup completely, and the relay would’ve failed. But Leonhard knows time is of the essence. And what's done is done. So, with his stricken musher’s help, he turns his sled and dogs around and sets off with the serum on board.
A few hours later, with the wind blowing and dusk darkening the sky, Leonhard pauses his sled at the banks of Norton Sound. He carefully watches the sea’s frozen surface roil. The choppy water is a sign that a storm is blowing in that will soon break up the ice.
Leonhard has to make a decision. He can cross Norton Sound, taking his sled over 20 miles of frozen sea. That’s the fastest route. But if the sled hits a weak point in the ice, it will condemn him and his dogs to a watery death—and the serum will be lost forever. Or Leonhard can take a longer overland route. It’s safer, but it will add hours to the journey.
Leonhard quickly checks the condition of his dogs. They are still eager to run, especially his lead dog, Togo. So Leonhard returns to the back of the sled, releases the brake, and urges his dogs onto the ice of Norton Sound.
The surface seems stable at first. But the further out Leonhard goes, the more he feels the ice move and the sled tilt. And Leonhard can do little to help. From the back of the sled, he cannot see the way ahead through the darkness. He must rely on Togo to pick the right path across the treacherous ice.
But the sled is making good time and Togo seems to be confident until a sound like a pistol shot echoes through the wind. Leonhard’s head jerks around before he realizes it’s the ice cracking. Water shoots up through gaps in the ice like geysers. But Togo ignores the distractions and continues to pad across the frozen surface, only occasionally veering to one side or another to avoid a weak spot.
Eventually, the dogs pull the sled up a slight incline and Leonhard realizes they are back on solid ground, ready to finish their last leg of the journey. By the time Leonhard finally hands over the serum to the musher in the relay, it's 3:15 AM, and Leonhard’s dog team will have run 91 miles in 12 hours through some of the most treacherous parts of the journey. But while the storm that threatened to break up the ice on Norton Sound did not stop Leanard and Togo from advancing, it will ensure that the final part of the Nome Serum Run is riddled with danger.
It’s just after midnight on February 1st, 1925, five days after the serum run began, and only 25 miles from Nome.
Gunnar Kaasen, the 20th and final musher in the relay, holds tight as his dogs charge down a hillside in the pitch black. Gunnar is only a few miles from Nome. But the danger isn’t over yet, in no small part because of the storm that is raging.
As the sled runs onto an exposed section of hill, a sidewind blasts Gunnar. It almost knocks him off the sled, which drifts to one side. He slams a boot to the ground, pushing the sled back toward the middle of the trail. But then, another gust of wind blows underneath the sled causing it to tip. At the final moment, Gunnar leaps into the snow as the sled turns over on its side.
Climbing to his feet, Gunnar runs to check on the dogs. Luckily, none of them are hurt and their harnesses aren’t tangled. Then when the wind momentarily dies down, he walks to the sled and pushes it back onto its runners. As Gunnar examines the damage, he notices the metal box containing the serum is missing. He sinks to his knees digging in the snow, praying that the box just fell out when the sled tipped. If it was lost further back on the trail, he may never find it.
After a moment of panic, Gunnar’s hand brushes against a hard, metal surface. He digs up the box from snow and clutches it to his chest for a moment before carefully placing it back on the sled and strapping it down with an extra rope for good measure.
Five hours later, an exhausted Gunnar rides his sled up Front Street in Nome. After traveling 674 miles over five and a half days, the serum has finally reached its destination. But the town seems deserted. Gunnar hopes that’s because it’s 5:30 in the morning, and not because he’s arrived too late.
Gunnar calls his dogs to a halt. Then he steps down from the sled, walks to his lead dog, and drops to his knees, ruffling the animal’s fur and telling him he’s done a great job. Gunnar is still praising his dog team when he hears a door open. He turns to see a local man peering outside, his face breaking into a hopeful smile.
During the relay race across Alaska, one more child passed away, bringing the total death toll of Nome’s diphtheria outbreak to five. But the crisis could have been far worse. After the serum arrived, no one else died, only possible due to the bravery and courage of 20 mushers, and over 150 dogs, who all helped complete the Nome Serum Run which came to a successful conclusion on this day, February 1st, 1925.
Next onHistory Daily. February 2nd, 1943: The Battle of Stalingrad, one of the bloodiest of World War II, ends in defeat for Nazi Germany.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Scott Reeves.
Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.