Statue of Balto the Wonder Dog
New York, New York
Many moons ago, Balto the Wonder Dog was a favorite punch line of Johnny Carson monologues. Honored as a bronze statue atop a rock in New York City's Central Park, Balto is now a favorite stop for families with kids, who straddle the poor pooch's back nonstop. A plaque on the rock is dedicated to the indomitable spirit of sled dogs.
Balto became a wonder in 1925, when the town of Nome, Alaska, was caught in a diphtheria epidemic, completely isolated from the outside world. Dr. Curtis Welch, the only physician in town, put out an urgent radio appeal for lifesaving antitoxin serum. Already several children had died and others were ill with the highly contagious disease. A hospital in Anchorage had a plentiful supply of fresh serum -- but how could it get to Nome in the dead of winter, with the ocean iced over, 700 miles from the nearest railroad?
State officials decided that the one sure way to get the serum through was by a continuous dog sled relay.
The honor of delivering the serum to Dr. Welch fell to an Alaskan dog sled master, Gunnar Kaasen, who had a team of Siberian huskies with a rookie lead dog named Balto. After the hand-off from the first dog sled team, Gunnar traversed the hellacious final 53 miles, with temperatures at 60 below zero and 70 mph winds.
Kaasen was blinded by the blizzard, which at times flipped the sled off the trail. He had to place all his trust in Balto. Second-to-last on the relay, Kaasen actually missed the hand-off to the last team -- remember, he was snowblind -- and continued on to Nome. They made it; the serum arrived on February 2, in time to halt the epidemic.
The heroic dogs toured the U.S., but their fame eventually faded, and the team was sold to a vaudeville promoter. In 1927, a Cleveland businessman visiting Los Angeles discovered the dogs on display, ill kept and in poor health. Cleveland schoolchildren donated pennies and residents chipped in to to raise $2,000 to buy Balto and the team. The money was raised and the team was brought to Cleveland.
After his death in 1933, Balto was stuffed and put on display at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, where he still stands today.