Pinch of Time

September 21, 2011

Old scrapbook reveals local connection to famous Alaskan race

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.


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.

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