While looking through an old scrapbook, I came upon a clipping that caught me by surprise:
"25 years ago: Wild Bill Shannon, son of Mr. and Mrs. Edward Shannon of Constable, and hero of the Alaskan dog race from Nevans to Nome with diphtheria serum, has issued a world-wide challenge for a race with dog teams from New York to Montreal for the championship of the world."
That was 1950, according to a handwritten note on the clipping. I had to know more, so to the Internet I went.
RACED BY SLED
I found that two Eskimo children died in Nome, Alaska, in 1925, followed by two white children, all with diphtheria, and the local physician, Dr. Curtis Welch, knew the whole town could be wiped out if the disease wasn't stopped.
The Alaskan Railroad Hospital in Anchorage had 300,000 units of serum to treat the disease, but the problem was getting it to Nome as fast as possible. The success of that challenge has evolved into the yearly Iditarod, to commemorate the heroism of all concerned. A movie "Balto" was made about one of the courageous sled dogs that pulled the serum the final miles, but that's not the whole story.
According to "A Tale from the Trail," adapted from "The Cruelest Miles," Shannon was asked to be the first musher in the relay. It was between 40 and 50 below zero, and the rule was you didn't run dogs at that temperature. But Wild Bill was known to have a "combustible mixture of hot temper, sharp wit and willingness to take risks." He is said to have commanded, "If people are dying … let's get started."
The leader of his dog-sled team was Blackie, a 5-year-old husky. They met the train at 9 p.m., wrapped the 20-pound box of serum in layers of fur and canvas, and took off. After hours of running the dogs, he realized they had to stop to warm up or they would all die. He reached Campbell's Roadhouse in Minto with his face black from frostbite. After a four-hour rest, he headed out, minus Cub, Jack and Jet, three of his 2-year-old dogs. The night had struck a new low: 62 degrees below zero.
Thirteen miles later, he reached the roadhouse at Tolovana and turned the serum over to the next relay team. It was many weeks before Wild Bill's face healed enough so he could shave, and his three dogs died from the ordeal. Three relay teams together had pounded more than 674 miles of snow- and ice-covered ground, in sub-zero temperatures in fewer than five days to deliver the serum.
I had to know more about this Franklin County native. The Malone Farmer reported on March 31, 1926, in a Constable Note, "Mr. and Mrs. Willard Shannon left for their home in Alaska."
On March 28, 1928, it was reported: "Edward Shannon, Jr., has gone to Alaska where his brother Willard Shannon resides…"
On March 20, 1929, the newspaper reported: "Willard Shannon of Alaska, who has been East for a few weeks has returned home. He visited his father, Edward Shannon, in this village, and his sister, Mrs. Dick in Albany, and another sister, Mrs. Doyle in Long Island. An account of Mr. Shannon's work in Alaska and his part in the diphtheria antitoxin transportation several years ago was recently given in the papers. The act was a heroic one at the time and Mr. Shannon earned and received great praise from the government. 'Wild Bill Shannon,' a name given to him is a misname and does not apply to him. He is in appearance and character the opposite and is an interesting speaker, refined and possesses a fun of knowledge. He has hosts of friends in this, his native town, where he is remembered very kindly for the special attention to his parents and family..."
Many accounts state Wild Bill died after being mauled by a grizzly bear. He's supposed to be buried in El Reno, Okla. How he got from grizzly bear country to Oklahoma I don't know. Guess that's work for another time.
One last thought, as always, please be kind to each another. The world needs more kindness.
Susan Tobias lives in Plattsburgh with her husband, Toby. She has been a Press-Republican newsroom employee since 1977. The Tobiases have six children, 18 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. They enjoy traveling to Maine and Colorado, and in her spare time, Susan loves to research local history and genealogy. Reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.