- Artist: Frederick George Richard Roth
- Date: 1925
- Medium & size: Bronze, over lifesize, with slate tablet
- Location: Central Park, East Drive at 66th St. The statue is on the pedestrian walk that goes below the East Drive. From the west, go to the south end of the Mall, find the statue of Shakespeare, and walk across the East Drive; then take the stairs down to the path below, and you’ll see the statue just east of the tunnel below the East Drive. From the east, enter the Park between 66th and 67th Streets, and bear left at the first intersection to the tunnel under the East Drive.
Nome, Alaska, exists because “Three Lucky Swedes” found gold nearby in 1898. When the gold rush ended a decade later, Nome’s population quickly dropped from 20,000 to 2,000.
But in the winter of 1925, those 2,000 were in peril. Several people had died from diphtheria – a disease that’s nearly forgotten today. Diphtheria makes the throat swell shut. Left untreated, it causes death by slow suffocation in up to 50% of its victims. And it spreads in close quarters and crowded conditions … such as Nome in winter. In New York City in the late 1800s, diphtheria killed thousands every year.
An antitoxin had been developed that usually cured those who contracted diphtheria. But in January 1925, Nome had only antitoxin that was past its due date. A new supply of the drug couldn’t be brought in by steamship, because Nome’s harbor was icebound. Flying an open-cockpit plane in gale-force winds was not a viable option. During the winter, Nome’s only reliable contact with the outside world was via a dogsled trip over the mountains that usually took three weeks.
So in 1925, a supply of the antitoxin was shipped by rail from Anchorage to Nenana. From Nenana to Nome – another 650 miles – twenty mushers and over a hundred dogs were arranged in relays. They carried the antitoxin through blizzard conditions and temperatures that dropped to 50 degrees below zero.
The journey that usually took three weeks was accomplished in five and a half days. The last 53 miles were run by Gunnar Kaason. Kaason gave credit for his success to his lead dog, Balto.
That year, only 5 deaths from diphtheria were recorded in Nome.
The story of the run to Nome – dubbed “The Race of Mercy” or the “Serum Run” – was a nationwide sensation in newspapers and in the new medium of radio. Almost immediately, a group of New Yorkers began to raise funds for a sculpture of Balto to be placed in Central Park. It was dedicated 10 months later, with Kaason and Balto in attendance.
The plaque below the sculpture shows a dogsled team in low relief, with the inscription, “Dedicated to the indomitable spirit of the sled dogs that relayed anti-toxin 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. Endurance fidelity intelligence.”
The first Iditarod Race was run in 1973. Inspired by the “Race of Mercy,” it covers 1,150 miles from Anchorage to Nome, and usually takes from nine to fifteen days to complete.
- Frederick George Richard Roth (1872-1944), born in Brooklyn, studied in Vienna and Berlin in the 1890s before establishing a studio in New York. He won the Speyer Prize from the National Academy of Design for Balto. From 1934 to 1936, under the Works Progress Administration, he was chief sculptor for the New York City Department of Parks. For the Central Park Zoo, which opened in 1934, Roth oversaw the sculptors of the friezes that adorn several buildings. In 1935 Roth’s team worked on the Prospect Park Zoo. By Roth’s own hand are the following sculptures in Central Park: Honey Bear and Dancing Goat; Sophie Loeb Fountain; and Mother Goose.
- This post is adapted from one of the episodes in the forthcoming Guides Who Know app on Central Park. For more on Central Park, see here or click “Central Park” in the Obsessions cloud at right.
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