In 1925, 20 dog sled teams participated in the "Great Race of Mercy" to retrieve desperately needed doses of diphtheria's antitoxin to the remote town of Nome, Alaska during a blizzard.
The most famous of these teams was Leonhard Seppala's, Seppala being an accomplished musher whose kennel provided many of Nome's sled dogs. Among them was Balto, who finished the relay's last 53-mile stretch as the lead dog and is likely the most well-known sled dog of his era.
But some argue that it wasn't Balto who was the hero of the "Great Race of Mercy," but Togo who was born undersized and in ill health. Seppala initially gave Togo to a neighbor, but Togo escaped and made his way back to Seppala. Togo turned out to be very high energy and was the perfect lead dog to set the pace and keep the rest of the team on the trail, guiding them where the musher wanted to go. He was Seppala's trusted and prized lead dog, and they won many races as a team. In fact, Togo's father, Suggen, led Seppala's team to victory at the 1914 All Alaska Sweepstakes Race.
At the time of the "Great Race of Mercy," Togo was 12 years old and was more than capable of leading the team through a blizzard, traversing a total of 264 miles together. Seppala and his team received the batch serum and, after several handoffs, made its way to Gunnar Kaasen, whose lead dog was Balto. Kaasen and Balto finished the last 53 miles of the relay, being hailed as heroes when they reached Nome with the serum. Seppala wasn't happy that Balto got the hero's welcome. In his book The Cruelest Miles, Seppala said: "I hope I shall never be the man to take away credit from any dog or driver who participated in that run. We all did our best. But when the country was roused to enthusiasm over the serum run driver, I resented the statue to Balto, for if any dog deserved special mention it was Togo."
Disney released an animated, highly fictionalized film about Balto in 1995. Balto is depicted as the hero of the Nome Serum Run. In 2019, Disney released a live-action movie, Togo, featuring Willem Dafoe as Seppala, and cast as Togo was Diesel, the 14th great-grandson of Togo himself. The film, much closer to actual events, depicts Togo as a rambunctious and destructive pup who eventually wins over the affection of Seppala and illustrates their journey through the Serum Run and after.
Togo was a decorated lead sled dog, covered five times the miles as Balto, and even saved his team from drifting away on an ice floe on the way back from the relay. Togo's father, Suggen, led Seppala's team in winning the 1914 All Alaska Sweepstakes Race. Balto played a part in delivering the diphtheria antitoxin. History should acknowledge his hard work, Togo was Nome's true champion.
Togo is preserved in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Headquarters and Balto is preserved at the Cleveland Natural History Museum.
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An interview with Togo director Ericson Core can be found here
Photo by Mitchell Henderson from Pexels
Written by: Lynn Moynahan