The Rescue of Nome: Balto and Friends


Gunnar KaasenIt has been a rough winter for much of the nation. The ol’ Polar Vortex has been dumping snow on parts of the country in amounts that you normally only read about in that Little House on the Prairie book where the Ingalls family had to grind wheat in a coffee grinder and burn straw to survive. I’ve done more than my fair share of moaning about the cold temperatures this winter. And since my moaning hasn’t helped one single bit, I’ve decided to start counting my blessings instead! No matter how cold I have been this winter, I never once had to resort to twisting sticks of straw for fuel. And, when I got sick, I was able to drive my vehicle over to the corner of “Happy and Healthy” in order to pick up some medicine from the Walgreens Pharmacy.

Not everyone has had those sorts of luxuries! With the Iditarod dogsled race coming up on March 1st, I’m reminded of the 1925 Serum Run that inspired it.  Of course, the most famous participant of the Serum Run was a Siberian Husky named Balto, but he was far from alone in this heroic effort. Today, in an effort to count my blessings – – while paying tribute to some individuals who knew a thing or two about winter weather – – I dedicate this edition of The Campfire Chronicle to Balto, and the 150 other sled dogs and twenty drivers who rescued the city of Nome in the 1925 Serum Run.

Spreading Like Wildfire Across the Ice

NomeThe year 1925 started out with quite a scare for the residents of Alaska. In January, doctors realized there was the potential for a diphtheria epidemic among the young people of Nome. I have played enough games of Oregon Trail to know that diphtheria is not to be trifled with.

As the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20, and foresight is often about as clear as mud. In December of 1924, a two-year-old Inuit boy died of diphtheria in a village near Nome, but he was misdiagnosed because no one else in the village was showing symptoms and the boy’s mother refused an autopsy. This first case wasn’t properly diagnosed until January 20, 1925, and by that time, it was already too late. By January 24th, there had been multiple fatalities and there were twenty more confirmed cases of diphtheria. The population of Nome and the surrounding area was about ten thousand people.  If the disease couldn’t be stopped, and stopped quickly, all of those people were at risk of contracting a disease with a nearly 100% mortality rate. (Cue: The Oregon Trail music, because the outlook was grim.)

The Snowball Effect

Nome HospitalThe inventory of diphtheria antitoxin in Nome had expired in 1918. More had been ordered, but it hadn’t arrived before the port of Nome had closed up for the winter. I confess that I have a habit of playing fast and lose with expiration dates on canned goods, but apparently it is one thing to consume a can of slightly expired stewed tomatoes and another thing to take a dose of diphtheria antitoxin that expired seven years ago! In an act of desperation, one child in the late stages of diphtheria had been given 6,000 units of the expired antitoxin . . .she died later that day.

The nearest supply of serum to stop the outbreak was located in Anchorage, approximately 1000 miles from Nome. It was one of those times when it seemed as if a thousand miles might as well be a million miles. Trains could not get through the snow of the Alaskan winter and the three airplanes in the vicinity that could potentially make the journey had been dismantled for the winter. But, as it turned out, the planes had open cockpits, so they weren’t reliable in cold weather anyway. There was apparently no way to get the serum in time to save Nome.

Nome, Alaska

There’s No Business Like Snow Business

Dogsled Serum DeliverySometimes necessity is the mother of invention. And sometimes necessity is the mother of convention! In the Alaska of 1925, necessity meant that it was time to go back to a more conventional form of transportation, one of a bygone era—dogsleds. You can imagine the desperation felt by the members of the Alaska Board of Health, when they determined that the only way to save an entire city was to bring serum in by dogsled. It was a unanimous decision. There was no other hope.

The serum was transported from Anchorage to Nenana by train, arriving on January 27th. There wasn’t enough of the antitoxin available to end the epidemic, but there was enough to contain it until the port of Nome reopened and the previously ordered serum could get through.

More than twenty mushers agreed to take part in the heroic effort. The plan was brilliant in its simplicity: Relay teams of canine athletes were arranged to cover the over 600 miles that lay ahead, and the Nome Serum Run began on January 27th.

Dashing Through the Snow

William “Wild Bill” ShannonDue to the limited amount of daylight in Alaska at that time of year, the teams had to run both day and night. The first driver, William “Wild Bill” Shannon was handed the 20-pound package of life-saving serum at the train station in Nenana. With the temperature dropping to -62° F, Shannon, who was suffering from severe frostbite, was forced to stop at a roadhouse where he warmed the antitoxin by the fire and dropped three dogs from his team, who were unable to continue. Then off he went!

William “Wild Bill” Shannon Shannon handed the antitoxin over to the next driver, at a roadhouse in Tolovana on January 28th. The temperature was then a balmy -56°! It was a grueling race against time, under the most extreme conditions. On January 30th, George Nulner was the tenth driver in the relay for life. Both of his lead dogs died during the journey, so Nulner took over for them, and led the team himself!

Nome Sweet Nome

Gunnar Kaasen and BaltoOn February 2, the last team, led by Gunnar Kaasen, with Balto in the lead, completed the final leg of fifty-three miles to reach Nome. But were it not for Balto’s keen sense of smell they would never have made it to Nome, because the winds were so intense and the snow was coming down so heavily, that Kaasen could not even see his hand in front of his face. Remarkably, through all that, Balto held the scent of Nome, and led them all safely home.

Balto is the name we all recognize and associate with the heroic event, and he was most certainly a hero in his own right. . .but the facts are that he had more than a little help.  All told, there were twenty drivers and 150 sled dogs responsible for the success of this venture. They traveled 674 miles in temperatures that rarely rose above -40°, through gusts of wind that were strong enough to knock over sleds and dogs. Twenty teams of brave men and dogs ran distances ranging from eighteen miles to an unthinkable 170 miles . . . and that 170 mile team, led by Norwegian born, Leonhard Seppala and his twelve-year-old lead dog, Togo, deserve a special commendation.  But Seppala had a very personal motive for his superhuman efforts.  His daughter was infected with the disease and in desperate need of the serum.  To save an extra day in transport time, Seppala took a dangerous shortcut across the ice, at a time when breakthrough was not only possible, but probable. They blazed across the ice in a whiteout snowstorm in -60 degree temperatures, and they made it, but barely. . .the very next day, the ice broke through.Balto

BaltoThere are multiple monuments dedicated to Balto and the Serum Run. The first, and possibly most famous, is the Balto statue and sled dog/musher monument located in Central Park in New York City. The statue is of Balto, but as the plaque says, it is,

“Dedicated to the indomitable spirit of the sled dogs that relayed antitoxin six hundred miles over rough ice, across treacherous waters, through Arctic blizzards, from Nenana to the relief of stricken Nome in the winter of 1925.”

So the next time I feel the need to complain about the cold weather or grouse about having to drive to the corner drugstore, I’ll think about the rescue of Nome. Bravo, heroes of Nome. Bravo.

If you have a few minutes available, watch this wonderful video from the History Channel, with documentary footage of the many heroes of Nome, during their journey and upon their arrival in Nome!

Happy Trails, y’all!
Anita Lequoia

The Ghost of Abraham Lincoln

The Ghost of Abraham LincolnHoly moly! I just sat down to do a little research for this President’s Day edition of The Campfire Chronicle, and dog gone it if I haven’t already learned something new. I’ve always thought of President’s Day as a combined birthday party for George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. It seemed like a good idea to me . . . let the two most famous U.S. Presidents share a cake and a piñata and . . . put all of the country’s mattresses on sale! I figured they wouldn’t mind sharing a party. I mean, their pictures were already sharing space on coloring pages in elementary schools all across the nation. But, by golly, it appears that this federal holiday was never, ever designated as a way of celebrating Abraham Lincoln’s birth. It is now, and has always been all about George Washington. My head is still reeling from this information . . . and I did verify it on Snopes.

So it is no surprise to me, then, that the ghost of Abraham Lincoln is said to roam the earth! Yes. Seriously. Sightings of Abraham Lincoln’s ghost have been reported for the past 144 years, and by some pretty reliable sources. So, on this President’s Day – –  which apparently has an apostrophe before the “s” rather than after the “s” – –  I’ve decided to pay tribute to that “other” February birthday boy, Abraham Lincoln . . . and his ghost.

Ghost Town

Abraham Lincoln1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is considered to be the country’s most famous haunted house, and the ghost of Abraham Lincoln is the most commonly reported sighting. Perhaps that’s because he was so darned recognizable in life. You might be interested to know that Abraham Lincoln himself did not believe in ghosts, which is irony at its finest. But, his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln was a big believer in spirits. It is thought that she became interested in spiritualism a decade before she made her home in the White House.

Mrs. LincolnEarly on, as First Lady, Mrs. Lincoln was known to attend séances at the homes Washington big wigs. Of course, by 1862, the Lincolns were grieving the death of their son, Willie. It’s assumed that Mrs. Lincoln’s interest in the afterlife was largely in an effort to communicate with Willie.

Willie LincolnShe began holding séances in the Red Room of the White House shortly after Willie’s death. It is believed that the President attended some of the séances, but that was Mary’s thing, not his. Apparently, these séances brought a great deal of comfort to Mrs. Lincoln.  In October 1863, she said to her half sister, “Willie lives. He comes to me every night and stands at the foot of the bed with the same sweet, adorable smile he always has had.”

4 Score and 7 Scares Ago…

Lincoln SeanceIt shouldn’t come as a shock then, that Mrs. Lincoln sought the services of spiritualists following President Lincoln’s assassination. It was a different day and age and, evidently, a former First Lady could still get around in relative anonymity. She began attending séances under the assumed name of Mrs. Tundall. Once, at a séance in Boston, she claimed that her dearly departed husband appeared before her.

William MumlerLater, she visited the studio of William Mumler, a Boston “spirit photographer.” He presented Mrs. Lincoln with a photograph of herself with a ghostly image of Abe photo-bombing her from behind. Personally, the photograph reminds me of a primitive version of those Olan Mills double exposure portraits from the 1970s, but I digress.


Following the Civil War, Mumler had begun photographing the “spirits” of dearly departed family members for those whose sons, brothers and husbands had not returned home. It was a lucrative business until Mumler was brought to trial for fraud, and the famous businessman P.T. Barnum testified against him. Barnum even hired someone to produce a portrait of himself with “Abraham Lincoln’s ghost”. Even though Mumler was acquitted, his popularity waned following that very public trial. However, fraudulent or not, that photo of Abraham Lincoln’s ghost is said to have brought great comfort to Mrs. Lincoln. What is most interesting about this photo is that Mumler always insisted, and even swore under oath, that he hadn’t known he was working for Mrs. Lincoln. He claims to have believed she was Mrs. Tundall. Creepy enough for you yet? Just wait.

The Ghost and Mrs. Coolidge

Grace CoolidgeAccording to the History Channel, sightings of Lincoln’s ghost occur most often when America is about to face her greatest challenges. It was shortly before the Great Depression when Grace Coolidge, the wife of President Calvin Coolidge, became the first person to admit to spotting what she believed to be the ghost of Abraham Lincoln. She said that she saw President Lincoln peering from a window of the Oval Office, looking across the Potomac River in the direction of Civil War battlefields.

Winston ChurchillDuring World War II, Lincoln’s ghost is said to have kept up quite the public appearance schedule around the White House! Winston Churchill claimed that the ghost walked in on him while he was smoking a cigar naked, during a visit to the White House. To me, that indicates that Lincoln’s ghost has a morbid sense of curiosity because I’ve seen pictures of Churchill and I think my ghost would have waited until he had put on a robe or something! At any rate, Churchill staunchly refused to ever spend another night in the White House.

Mrs. Eleanor RooseveltEleanor Roosevelt claimed to have received multiple visits from Lincoln’s ghost when she used the Lincoln Bedroom as her study, although she never admitted to seeing a physical presence. She also blamed the ghost for the Roosevelt’s family dog, Fala’s, unexplained barking outbursts. If her logic is correct, then I’m pretty sure my house is haunted too, but I’m not about to second-guess Eleanor Roosevelt!

Queen WilhelminaOne of FDR’s staffers reported seeing Lincoln’s ghost enter a room, sit down and remove his boots. And, during the FDR administration, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands reported hearing a knock at her room in the White House. When she opened the door, she said she saw Lincoln’s ghost standing in the doorway wearing his stovepipe hat. She was so overwhelmed that she reportedly  fainted on the spot.

Lady Bird JohnsonDuring the Vietnam War, Lady Bird Johnson believed she felt Lincoln’s aura when she was watching a television show about him. All told, at least six U.S. Presidents and six First Ladies have acknowledged seeing Lincoln’s recognizable figure or sensing his presence. Other sightings have come from Maureen Reagan and her husband, and sundry White House guests and staff.

The Ghosts of Presidents Past

Abraham LincolnPsychics have theorized that Lincoln continues to haunt the earth because he was never able to finish his official tasks, due to that nasty Ford’s Theatre incident. I am now firmly of the belief that he just wants his birthday to be a national holiday! In my mind, the holiday will always have an apostrophe after the “s”. Happy Presidents’ Day, Mr. Lincoln!

Happy trails y’all,
Anita Lequoia

Annie Oakley and Frank Butler: A Love Story

Annie Oakley and Frank ButlerI can tell by the swarms of bewildered men wandering aimlessly through the greeting card and candy aisles at Wal Mart that Valentine’s Day is upon us. So, I figured I had better come up with a lovey-dovey Western blog post. I’m thinking that since this holiday has a cherub mascot that is a sharp shooter with a bow and arrow, it might be a good idea to continue with that sharp shooter theme. So, I hereby dedicate this Valentine’s edition of The Campfire Chronicle to the loving sharp shooters, Annie Oakley and Frank Butler!

I should also confess something to you. You’ve undoubtedly noticed that I often write about fairly obscure topics, and this is because I truly enjoy learning about them. But also, it’s because I find it a little boring to write about any topic that might fall under the “common knowledge” category. While there is no true metric to gauge when a topic becomes common knowledge, I think that it’s safe to say that it if Irving Berlin wrote a musical play about the subject, it’s no longer remotely obscure! But, hey, I’m feeling daring. . .and anyway, I think you’ll find that there are some aspects of the Oakley-Butler love story that are quite surprising and obscure, and not at all common knowledge. So, why don’t you go grab a handful of those chalky little conversation hearts to munch on while I tell you about one of the greatest love stories of the Old West?

Why Annie Got Her Gun

Annie OakleyAnnie Oakley was born Phoebe Ann Moses (or Mosey, depending upon the source) in Darke County, Ohio on August 13, 1860. She was the sixth of seven children, and while the other girls in the family were playing with ragdolls and dreaming of motherhood, Annie was dreaming about the day she could get her hands on her father’s gun!

She was just five-years-old when her father died from complications of frostbite, and lean years followed for the Moses family.  Annie was eager to help, and her opportunity came in the shape of her father’s old rifle. Annie was eight-years-old when she took her father’s gun and shot her first squirrel.

She built her skills and did an impressive job at providing food and income for her family, but there’s really only so much any little girl with a shotgun can do. Seven mouths were simply too many to feed and Annie’s mother placed Annie and most of her six living children in foster care or orphanages. As you might imagine, it was not a happy time for Annie. She was a teenager when she finally returned home. Again, she grabbed her father’s rifle and went to work. She made so much money selling game to a local grocery store that she was able to pay off the $200 mortgage on her mother’s home!

Annie began entering shooting competitions and she won them with such regularity that her hometown disqualified her from entering any more. Maybe that’s why she traveled to Cincinnati, at the age of fifteen, to enter a contest being held there.

The Butler Didn’t Do It

Frank ButlerIt was 1875 when Phoebe Ann Moses found herself competing against a sharp shooter named Frank E. Butler in a Thanksgiving competition. Butler was a dashing twenty-five-year-old Irish immigrant, who was already well-known as a crack shot and a successful vaudeville performer. But when it came to winning that particular competition on that particular day, the Butler didn’t do it!

Lesser men might have been humiliated to lose a contest to a fifteen-year-old girl who measured in at about five-foot-zero, but Butler was not.  Rather, he was pretty impressed, and not just by his competitor’s shooting skill!   When I look at pictures of Annie Oakley, I can easily see why Frank Butler was instantly smitten. . .she was  extraordinarily beautiful, with thick, flowing hair and full-lips. Apparently the attraction was mutual, and they began seeing each other regularly.  I’m glad that Annie found a man who could appreciate her as more than just a pretty face!

Shot Through the Heart

Annie Oakley and Frank ButlerThey were married ten days after Annie’s sixteenth birthday, which wasn’t even remotely creepy in 1876! Frank continued touring with a shooting act and joined forces with a male partner named Baughman. They spent a while touring with a circus, and Annie was right there with Frank every step of the way offering moral support.

Graham and Butler Circus TourIn 1882, Frank found a new partner, John Graham, and the two performed in theaters in an act they called, “America’s Own Rifle Team and Champion All Around Shots.” Hey, the name of the act might not have flowed off the tongue, but they did all right financially! Then, one night in Springfield, Ohio, Graham became ill and Frank needed a replacement. Hmm… If only he had known a another crack shot he could hire as a replacement. . .

Fortunately, Frank was not too proud to acknowledge that he was married to the perfect person to fill that available job, and that was the beginning of a new life for both of them. The crowds loved Annie! Graham was out of the act permanently, and Annie was in. By this time, Annie was going by the name Annie Oakley and “Butler and Oakley” joined the vaudeville circuit as a team, and later joined the famous Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show.

Little Sure Shot and Mr. Secure in Himself

Chief Sitting BullAnnie met Chief Sitting Bull in 1884 while she and Frank were touring with Buffalo Bill, and the Chief was so impressed with Annie that he “adopted” her and gave her the Lakota name, Watanya Cicilla or “Little Sure Shot.” Sadly, no such ceremonial names were given to poor Frank Butler! But heck, I still like to think of him as “Mr. Secure in Himself.” It took a lot for a man from the Old West to step back and let his wife take the spotlight the way Frank did, and throughout their many years of touring, he was always proud to have Annie Oakley take top billing.

OakleyOver the years, Frank Butler has been portrayed as a man who was envious of his wife’s talent and audience appeal, but the facts show that this was not at all the case. When they toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, Butler was more the manager of the act, while Oakley was the undisputed star.

Annie Oakley FlyerThis Wild West couple had a wild ride during their professional partnership. They enjoyed an extended tour of the United States as well as Europe, they hobnobbed with royalty and rode the roller coaster ups and downs of show business together. . . as a team.


Mr. and Mrs. Butler

Mr. and Mrs. ButlerIn the end, the marriage of Annie Oakley and Frank Butler proved to have more staying power than their impressive careers. Annie officially retired from Wild West shows in 1913, and they thoroughly enjoyed their golden years of domestic normalcy. They amused themselves with hobbies and charities and they took long automobile trips together. Basically, they just spent a whole lot of time enjoying life as Mr. and Mrs. Butler.

The pair had been married for fifty years when Annie died on November 3, 1926. Frank was so distraught that he simply stopped eating, on the hope of joining her, as soon as possible. And Frank got his wish . . . he followed her in death eighteen days later, on November 21, 1926.

As Valentine’s Day approaches and I watch the frantic men scouring the greeting card aisles, I can’t help but think they would do well to take a little lesson in love and romance from Frank Butler. Of his beloved Annie Oakley, he wrote:

Her presence would remind you

Of an angel in the skies,

And you bet I love this little girl

With the rain drops in her eyes.

Yes. They were a loving couple, with a deep bond. Whether their story is common knowledge or not, theirs is a love story that is uncommonly good.

Here’s a very special video, originally filmed in 1894 by none other than the inventor of the light bulb, Thomas Edison, featuring Annie and her beloved Frank.

Happy Valentine’s Day, y’all!
Anita Lequoia