A scene from the 2019 Disney movie “Togo” that tells the story of the heroic effort to bring serum to Nome during an Alaskan winter in 1925. The Walt Disney Co.

Recognizing the everlasting appeal of animal tales, Time magazine compiled a list of the Top 10 Heroic Animals of all time.

Beating out the competition in the decade-old rankings, which included Alexander the Great’s famed horse Bucephalus, was an Alaskan sled dog named Togo.

Described by The New York Times in 1930 as the “hero of a thousand frozen trails,” the Siberian husky gained renown after one especially courageous dash across the wilderness that captured the attention of the world.

After achieving fame, Togo wound up spending his final years in, of all places, Poland Spring.

If he missed his native Alaska, he never complained about it.

Togo was a pretty well-known dog during the Roaring ’20s, when the nation watched transfixed as he guided a team that raced through the worst that winter could offer to deliver badly needed diphtheria serum to an isolated Alaskan town.

Proving once again that timing is everything, Togo’s fame was eclipsed by Balto, another dog on the team, who happened to be in the lead spot at the end of the arduous wilderness journey. The press focused so much attention on Balto that people quickly coughed up cash to erect a statue of the lesser canine in New York’s Central Park.

But Togo, who did most of the real work, got plenty of notice as well, and in recent years he’s nudged Balto to the background, as shown by his victory in Time’s tally over Bucephalus and a pigeon named Cher Ami.

Togo has also been featured in a highly ranked but little-noticed 2019 Disney movie bearing his name and in recent stories by everything from National Geographic to Sports Illustrated.

In short, the world has come to know why his owner, Leonhard Seppala, a legendary dog sled musher, told a reporter that he’d never get another dog like Togo, “who saved my life many times and covered more miles than any other dog in the history of Alaska.”

WHEN THE WORLD HEARD ABOUT TOGO

The Lewiston Evening Journal carried news of the dogs’ effort on page one.

During a harsh winter in 1925, a diphtheria epidemic slammed the small Alaskan town of Nome. Children began dying. Hope was in short supply.

A serum existed that could save lives, but Nome didn’t have it.

Nome also lacked roads. The closest rail line ended 674 miles away, across frozen bays and frigid mountains.

Across the world, newspapers provided daily updates on the challenge. Could the children be saved?

Authorities quickly determined the best way to get the serum from the rail head to Nome lay in creating a dog sled relay that could hustle the medicine to Nome in six days, if luck, mushers and dogs held out.

Seppala proved the key. He and his team would cover 164 of the worst territory during the most brutal storm in memory, sometimes in whiteout conditions.

He knew he could count on Togo, chock full of spirit and courage, as his lead dog for the team. The dog had already proven his mettle in various competitions and daily work moving the mail across the sparsely populated wilds of Alaska.

Togo leading a team in 1921. Sigrid Seppala Hanks Collection, Carrie M. McLain Memorial Museum

One time, Seppala said, “We were traveling on the ice in Norton Bay” that could easily have broken and left them floating on “a big cake” for days. Along the way, “it did break” and created a 5-foot gap “of icy, deep water.”

He said he called for Togo, the lead on his sled, to jump. “And he did, clear to the other side” and then pulled the rest of the dogs and the sled after him.

In another instance, when he told Togo to jump, the dog obeyed but his harness broke and he landed in the water, paddling in a blizzard in the middle of a gap that opened to some 200 yards, Seppala said. Togo swam to him and Seppala pulled him out.

“For nearly an hour, I rolled him in the snow to dry him and keep him from freezing. He looked like a giant big snowball. But soon he was harnessed and leading the team again,” the famed musher said.

When crunch time came for Nome, Togo proved tough enough to guide the sled through the storm, astounding even the hardened mushers who thought they’d seen it all.

Togo went on to race some more. He also fathered a whole bunch of shaggy Huskies with impeccable bloodlines.

TOGO IN MAINE

Elizabeth Ricker and Togo in Maine. Portland Press Herald

Elizabeth Ricker, an all-around athlete at a time when few women competed so vigorously, met Seppala in January 1927 when both took part in dog sled races at Poland Spring organized by the New England Sled Dog Club. Seppala brought Togo with him.

The Ricker family had long owned property in Poland and began selling water from Poland Spring in the 1800s. They developed a resort, including an inn, as the water’s fame grew.

Ricker and Seppala must have got on swimmingly because they agreed to a partnership and formed the first Seppala Kennels at her home in Poland that same year, an operation that went on to play a key role in preserving the lineage.

The Poland Spring Preservation Society indicates the kennel population at Ricker’s property reached as many as 160 dogs, though only eight  were ever registered with the American Kennel Club.

After they got to know each other, Seppala gave Togo to Ricker.

“It seemed best to leave him where he could be pensioned and enjoy a well-earned rest,” Seppala later wrote in one of his books. “But it was a sad parting on a cold gray March morning when Togo raised a small paw to my knee as if questioning why he was not going along with me. For the first time in twelve years, I hit the trail without Togo.”

In Maine, reporters noted that Togo slept a lot. They liked to assume he dreamed of blizzards and ice.

Like many aging celebrities, Togo got out and about some, since news stories note Togo’s presence at everything from an Exchange Club meeting in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, to a dog derby in Quebec. Leonhard Seppala’s brother Asle even raced a sled dog team in 1928 with Togo in the lead in the Poconos.

Despite all the hoopla surrounding him, Togo also managed the time for a ghost-written book, another celebrity perk.

“Togo’s Fireside Reflections,” a 1928 book written by Ricker, was printed by the Lewiston Journal. Some were autographed by dipping Togo’s paw in some ink.

Called “the Holy Grail of sled dog books” by one seller, the little books are worth quite a bit nowadays.

Leonhard Seppala said goodbye to Togo before Togo left Maine for a last trip to New Haven. Sigrid Seppala Hanks Collection, Carrie M. McLain Memorial Museum

TOGO’S FATE AND LASTING REMINDERS

Fame, though, isn’t everything.

Albert Payson Terhune, an author whose fictional works about dogs are still widely read, discussed Togo in a newspaper column that appeared in many publications.

He said that Ricker had lately “hit on plan to have him cremated and then to have his ashes scattered to the winds in the Northland of his birth.”

“It was a poetic idea,” Terhune said. “The only flaw in it was that Togo was still very much alive.”

“Whether Mrs. Ricker decided to have him killed and then cremated or to wait for him to die a natural death, I don’t know,” he added.

The Lewiston Evening Journal took note of Togo’s fate in a Dec. 6, 1929 story.

The Associated Press reported in early December of 1929 that Togo, still “proudly alert” at age 16, “was placed on a train” in Poland Spring to be taken to New Haven, Connecticut, where “he will be put to death and his pelt preserved in the Peabody Museum of Yale University.”

In a separate story, the AP said Ricker “wishing to have Togo’s splendid body preserved while he was still alert of ear and poise, and before he had become subject to the infirmities of age, decided to have him painlessly put to death” and put on display.

The New York Times headline summed up the story: “Dog Hero To Be Killed.”

Terhune said the stories gave him “a mental picture of the good old dog as, obedient to his mistress’ commands, he stepped into the crate which was to carry him to his death.”

“A dog that is ‘proudly alert’ surely has enough strength and vigor in him to enjoy life for a goodly space of time,” Terhune wrote. “If ever a dog deserved to enjoy such an old age of peaceful happiness to the end, it seems to me that dog was Togo.”

Other reports said that Togo suffered from skin ailments and had trouble walking. And Seppala came to Maine to say goodbye before that final voyage.

Ralph Morrill, chief zoology preparator at the Peabody Museum of Natural History, used the dog’s pelt to create a statue of Togo with his original hair.

Enclosed in a glass case, it went on display as part of a dog collection at the Peabody for decades. Since 1987 it’s been at the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Museum in Wasilla, Alaska, not far from former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s home.

The Peabody’s professionals also mounted Togo’s skeleton, which remains somewhere in the museum’s vast collection, not on display but available at its West Campus site for inspection.

Just ask for YPM MAM 7243.

It may look like some bleached bones pinned together. But, really, it’s what’s left of Togo.

Togo’s skeleton at Yale University. Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History; photo by Division of Vertebrate Zoology, Yale Peabody Museum, 2009

A PERMANENT MEMORIAL IN MAINE?

In tiny Seward Park in New York City, a statue of Togo has graced its East Broadway entrance for the past two decades.

But if a new initiative works out, there may be another statue erected of the heroic canine, this time in Poland Spring at the Maine State Building.

Madison Parr, a marketing director for a tech startup, said she watched “Togo” on Disney+ a year ago at her home in Kansas City and found it so “super emotional” that she immediately plunged into learning more about the dog, quickly finding that he had ended up in Maine. She helped put together a team that soon began pushing for a statue to honor Togo near the place he lived after 1927.

Parr reached out to the town of Poland, which led to Cyndi Robbins, current owner of the Poland Spring Resort. “Togo spent his last days here at our resort,” she said in a prepared statement. “Erecting this monument will help Mainers connect to this part of our history.”

There is an effort underway to raise funds for the statue.

Statue of Togo at Seward Park in New York City. Seward Park Conservancy

The Poland Spring Preservation Society is trying to raise $25,000 for the project. Parr said it has collected about $10,000 so far.

Author Jonathan Hayes, who breeds Seppala Siberian sled dogs, which are descendants of Togo and the other dogs of the famous dog team, plans a more than 200-mile dog sled journey through the Maine woods starting Feb. 20 to raise funds for the monument. Parr, who now lives in New Jersey, hopes to see him at the finish line in what would be her first trip to the Pine Tree State.

“Togo was an exceptional dog and Leonhard Seppala was an exceptional musher,” said Hayes, of Madawaska and the author of “The True Tails of Togo the Sled Dog!” “I’m excited to think that my dog sled expedition with the descendants of Seppala’s team will help to create a permanent reminder to our state residents of our connection to this inspiring moment in American history.”

Parr said if everything goes well, a well-regarded artist in Harmony, Maine, David Smus, will have the statue done this year.

Leonhard Seppala and Togo


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