While watching the news this past week about the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccine, the former Borough Historian of Manhattan, Michael Miscione was reminded of something: that dog statue in Central Park.
In January 1925, a Siberian Husky named Balto, along with a team of sled dogs, brought the diphtheria antitoxin to Nome, Alaska — a story that made national headlines. The small town was on the verge of an outbreak — the only cure was in Anchorage, and sled dogs were the last hope of transporting it. Their mission was accomplished, and the dogs were celebrated all over the country.
By the end of that year, exactly 95 years ago this week, a statue to Balto and his fellow furry friends was dedicated in Central Park. (Yes, Central Park erected a statue of a real dog 95 years before honoring a real woman with a statue.) The NY Times reported that Parks Commissioner Francis D. Galatin noted it was "a most unique occasion in having a real 'hero' present at the dedication of a monument in his honor, as most heroes have to wait until after they are dead to be honored." Still, the paper reported, Balto appeared "unmoved" by the honor.
"While Balto's likeness is certainly the featured element, the monument as a whole was meant to honor all the sled dogs who participated in the serum run," Miscione told Gothamist. "There were well over a hundred of them, divided into 20 teams. Balto was just the leader of the team that completed the last leg — and frankly, his claim to the role as lead dog is in some dispute. There is evidence that another dog named Fox really led the team, but newspaper [reporters] preferred Balto so he was portrayed as the star."
The real star, however, may not have been Balto or Fox, but a dog named Togo.
Miscione notes that Togo was "arguably the most heroic canine of the run... his team ran nearly five times as far as Balto's, and through terrifying weather conditions."
Following the run, Togo's musher brought all of the dogs to New York City for a publicity tour, and it was Togo who received a gold medal at Madison Square Garden from the Alaskan Society of New York. And you know what? He got a statue, too — it's on the Lower East Side in Seward Park. These very good boys also got the Hollywood treatment much later.
A spokesperson for NYC Parks told Gothamist that the statue of Balto is one of the most popular monuments in Central Park, as well as in their entire collection citywide. They were unable to confirm why he was honored in New York City, however. Perhaps even more mysterious, the real Balto is now mounted and on display in the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
Listen to Jim O'Grady's story on Balto on WNYC: