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Cleveland's own Balto, who saved a village and became a national hero, turns 100

Posted at 9:40 AM, Mar 02, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-02 11:43:59-05

CLEVELAND — One hundred years ago, a dog named Balto, who would become a worldwide star and hero, was born.

Something only a dog could do

On Jan. 20, 1925, an outbreak of diphtheria, a highly contagious disease affecting the throat and lungs, in a remote part of Alaska called Nome, brought a team of sled dogs to the national stage, including Balto.

During the winter months, only a dog team could reach Nome through a path called Iditarod Trail, a trail usually used to carry mail. Balto, who was leading the pack, made a 674-mile journey with other dogs and a relay of drivers to the disease-stricken Nome.

Balto and his teammates became instant heroes among the residents of Balto and the country as they successfully delivered the much-needed serum to its citizens.

Famous Balto hero of Alaskan epidemic given freedom of city on arrival at Seattle. Photo: The Cleveland Memory Project

Life after saving a village

Weeks after delivering the serum, Balto and his team starred in a film called “Balto’s Race to Nome.” The two-reel film was released in June 1925. Aside from a few studio stills, no print of the film is known to exist today. Balto and his teammates’ future became grim after a dispute between owners over unpaid wages.

The dogs were transferred to a “dime” museum in Los Angeles, where a Cleveland businessman George Kimble became outraged at the mistreatment of the dogs that he struck a deal with the dog's owners and offered to buy them for $2,000.

With only two weeks to raise the money, radio broadcasts across the country appealed to the public for donations, including headlines in the Cleveland Plain Dealer to urge citizens to save the dog heroes.

In just 10 days, enough money was raised to bring Balto and his six companions to Cleveland, welcoming them with a grand parade in Public Square.

The dogs were taken to Brookside Zoo, now called the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, to live out their lives.

Balto and the team at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. Photo: The Cleveland Memory Project

The Cleveland Museum of Natural History says 15,000 people visited dogs on their first day at the zoo. Balto died on March 14, 1933, at 14.

The husky is now mounted and housed in the permanent collection of The Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

Celebrating a hero in Cleveland

The Cleveland Museum of Natural History is celebrating his birthday with a celebration on Saturday, March 2 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

The day of celebration in the Wade Oval Lobby begins with a presentation in the auditorium, a Cleveland Animal Protective League Mobile Adoption Unit and a junior Iditarod Discovery Center, among other events.

Read more about Balto's legacy here.