Postal Employees, Nome, Sled Dogs & Memories Of Long Ago

Martin Buser, Mushing Into Nome At The End Of The Iditarod. (Photo for the Journal by Buck Shreck) Nome Shuts Down Its High Schools Aft...

Martin Buser, Mushing Into Nome At The End Of The Iditarod. (Photo for the Journal by Buck Shreck)

Nome Shuts Down Its High Schools After One Covid Case


Ninety-five years ago, in 1925, Nome was the site of a major epidemic. Today, the Iditarod Sled Dog Race celebrates that difficult era along Alaska's icy coast with hoopla, barking dogs, and steak dinners along the trail.

But, back then, this was not fun. Kids in Nome had begun getting what people thought was tonsillitis. Epidemics are like that. You think it's nothing, and then it turns into something very dangerous.

It wasn't tonsillitis -- it was diphtheria, and the children of Nome began to die.

The Iditarod Trail was a mail trail. But the post office mushers who had reliably brought the mail for years were about to be laid off by 1925. They were about to be replaced by newfangled airplanes.

Yet, when the epidemic occurred, the weather was so bad that the planes couldn't fly. So the mushers -- 20 of them -- were asked to come back into service to save the children of that distant coastal community that was not their own.

They relayed a 20 lb, quilt-wrapped bottle of serum up the trail in the dead of winter. The typical run to Nome across the wilderness took 30 days by dogsled. This one took under six. The serum arrived in Nome, frozen solid, but still usable.

Today, we think of all that as "history." Today, the facts of a deadly epidemic at that time in Nome are overshadowed by the excitement of mid-winter celebrations.

There are parties in Anchorage and Nome during the modern Iditarod Sled Dog Race, heralding the event with happiness and good cheer. Alaskans wonder what this year's  mushers look like. Whether dogs will be lost on the trail. Who will win. What Dee Dee Jonrowe will say on TV...

The messy stuff -- the dying children, the frantic doctors, the race from the little river town of Nenana through blizzards – that's all in the distant past. At one time, though, it was all too real.

Nome has never forgotten the reality of that epidemic. A few days ago, in late August, 2020, a "student-athlete" in Nome came down with COVID-19. And Nome, ever watchful, shut down its in-person high schools to protect its people.


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