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Last Survivor of 1925 Serum Run Humbly Recalls His Role

January 30, 1995

GALENA, Alaska (AP) _ It’s been 70 years since Edgar Nollner and his fellow dog drivers captured the world’s attention by relaying a life-saving package of diphtheria serum 674 miles over some of Alaska’s least forgiving terrain.

The relay, which took place over five days during a memorably brutal winter, helped beat back an epidemic threatening Nome and later inspired the annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Nollner is now 90 and the lone survivor among the 20 drivers taking part in the dramatic relay, which ended in early February 1925.

He has forgotten many of the details, but he remembers the most evocative things _ it was 56 degrees below zero, it was dark, and it took him and his dog team three hours to advance the serum 24 miles along the frozen Yukon River.

``I just wanted to help, that’s all,″ Nollner said at his modest house in Galena, 330 roadless miles northwest of Anchorage.

A man given to silence, Nollner has stashed away a wealth of memories over his nine decades. The serum run seems to rank well down on the list.

In fact, he would much rather talk about working as a Yukon River tugboat pilot, his skill at calling wild geese, and the nights he wore out his partners on dance floors up and down the river.

``I don’t think about it much _ just when people call me about it,″ he said, puzzled that anybody would still care.

The race to Nome started after several cases of diphtheria, once a common killer of young children, were discovered in the former gold-rush town of 1,400.

Because there wasn’t enough serum in Nome, a call went out for more and a month-long quarantine was imposed to slow the spread of the contagious bacteria.

A sufficient supply of serum was found at an Anchorage hospital and quickly put on a train north. The initial idea was to fly it from Fairbanks to Nome, but that option was deemed too risky for both pilot and cargo because of the extreme cold.

Officials settled on ferrying it by dog sled on the well-traveled mail route that originated in Nenana, a railroad stop south of Fairbanks. Word went out to villages along the trail to choose the best mushers.

On Jan. 28, the day after Wild Bill Shannon mushed out of Nenana with the serum, the wiry Nollner _ well-known on the Yukon as a champion racer _ harnessed his seven huskies and tied them to the front of a homemade birch sled.

Wearing a squirrel-skin parka and reindeer mukluks, he headed upriver and waited overnight in a cabin at the mouth of Whiskey Creek. The frigid weather surpassed anything he had ever mushed in, Nollner said. Had the situation not been so dire, he would have stayed home.

The plan was to mush the 42 miles downriver to Bishop Mountain for the handoff to Charlie Evans, Nollner’s brother-in-law. But since Nollner’s younger brother George wanted to help, they agreed to change drivers in Galena.

``I couldn’t see the dogs because of the ice fog,″ Nollner said of his short trip with the serum. ``I just let them go and they followed the trail. In Galena, I jumped off the sled and George jumped on and headed for Bishop Mountain.″

At Shaktoolik, during a fierce blizzard, famed musher Leonhard Seppala of Nome took the package and guided his team onto the frozen Norton Sound, a dangerous route but the most direct. Seppala and his dogs fought through the gale-force winds and blinding snow during their 91-mile trek, the single longest leg of the journey.

Gunnar Kaasen carried the serum the final 53 miles to his stricken hometown, arriving early on Feb. 2. The relay had taken 127 1/2 hours, nearly twice as fast as the most optimistic estimates despite the harsh conditions.

The serum, frozen solid on the trail, was thawed and residents were being inoculated within hours. Five people died from diphtheria and many other had been infected.

Seppala went to his grave bitter that his key role was largely overlooked, since most of the race’s glory went to Kaasen. The serum’s maker gave Kaasen $1,000 and he later made movies and toured the nation with his dogs. A statue of his lead dog, Balto, still stands in New York City’s Central Park.

For Nollner and the others, fame was fleeting. He received $35 from the government and then resumed his everyday life on the Yukon, where he fathered 20 children with two wives.

He later received a medal from the serum maker, but lost it somewhere over the years. A small cardboard box stored under his coffee table holds citations, plaques, prized photos and a copy of a 1985 letter from President Reagan marking the run’s 60th anniversary.

Nollner hasn’t mushed dogs in 30 years, but he still dances _ ``slow dances now,″ he said. Every other year, the Iditarod comes through town, and he gets out to see the racers.

He turned down the chance to re-enact the run on its 50th anniversary and didn’t take part in a commemorative relay this year, but two of his sons signed up.

The 20 mushers involved in the original run never held a reunion, though the men from the Yukon knew each other before and kept up the ties afterward.

And now, it’s only Nollner.

``Nineteen of them are gone,″ he said. ``I never thought I’d be the last one.″

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