Travel Channel host Don Wildman and the “Mysteries at the Museum” crew made their way to another Cleveland historical exhibit - “Balto and the Legacy of the Serum Run” at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
This permanent exhibit showcases the Alaskan Iditarod made famous by the serum run in Nome, Alaska in 1925. The most impressive and best-loved part of the exhibit is Balto himself, who was mounted after his death and put on display to honor his heroic feat.
Some may have heard of Balto, but not many know his full story or his connection to Cleveland. Back in the 1920s, before Alaska was officially a U.S. state, Nome was covered in ice the majority of the year, the nearest railroad was over 650 miles away, and there really was no easy access to the area.
This seclusion was made more evident when on January 20, 1925, a diphtheria outbreak spread through the town. Desperate for help, the found out Seattle the serum they needed. But getting the serum would be no easy task. They could fly the serum to Anchorage, send it on a train to Nenana, but then required the efforts of sled dogs to complete the journey. Time was of the essence.
The most important member of each sled team was the lead dog. Balto was tasked with the job of leading his group. When his sled team made it to their final post to exchange serum to the last team, they found the musher still asleep, so they went on ahead. Going over dangerous terrain in sometimes stormy conditions, Balto and his team of driver and dogs completed the final run. At one point Balto even successfully stopped the team from going into a river during white-out conditions.
Balto and the other sled teams completed a 674 mile trip in just over 127 hours - a world record for mushers. They delivered the serum on February 2, 1925 and became instant celebrities. Balto’s owner allowed a Hollywood producer to borrow Balto and a few other dogs for a film project. Soon after, the dogs spent years touring in shows before their celebrity status wore off. A Cleveland businessman, George Kimble, discovered Balto and the others in a museum suffering and mistreated. Kimble wanted to get the dogs out of the deplorable conditions and offered to buy the dogs. With two weeks to raise the money, messages were broadcast on radio and in newspapers in order to raise funds for the dogs. People all over gave generously and the dogs were purchased for $2,000.
The dogs were brought back to Cleveland where they enjoyed great fanfare upon their arrival. Balto spent the rest of his life living comfortably at the Brookside Zoo (now the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo). Balto died on March 14, 1933 at age 14.
Visitors to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History can see Balto and be reminded of his heroic deeds and the generosity of Cleveland to allow him and the other hero dogs to retire with dignity.
Stay tuned for the third and final part of this 3-part series.