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Diving back into history may be delightful or dismaying. KNKX's Nick Morrison delivers a daily dose of it with his signature humor and skepticism. Here's what happened on this day.

March 21: Bach is born, plus the legend of Gunnar and Balto

Seattle Post-Intelligencer Staff photographer
University of Washington, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Gunnar Kaasen and the sled dog Balto arrived via the steamship Alameda at Pier 2 on March 21, 1925. Kaasen and his dog team were on their way from Alaska to Mt. Rainier National Park to film the movie “Balto’s Race to Nome.”


Johann Sebastian Bach is born — 1685

Today is the birthday—or one of them, anyway*—of Johann Sebastian Bach, in 1685. At least everyone agrees on the year. He was a renowned composer, serious Lutheran and, apparently, one heck of an organ player. Some of his more famous compositions include the Brandenburg Concertos, Goldberg Variations and The Well-Tempered Clavier.

As all Bach lovers know, he was an incredibly prolific composer, having cranked out over 1,000 pieces of music. He was also a prolific breeder, fathering a total of 20 children with two wives (consecutively, I hasten to add.) His first wife was his second cousin, Maria. She had 7 children via Bach and died at age 35. Which should surprise no one. His second and final wife, Anna (no relation) gave him a whopping 13 more. Only 10 of the 20 made it to adulthood. Still..along with reams of magnificent music, Bach also left an arguably unconscionable carbon footprint.

*Some say it’s the 21st, some say it’s the 31st. It’s some business about the Julian calendar and the Gregorian calendar, I think. I don’t have an opinion. I’m using it here because I need the material.

Gunnar and Balto - 1925

On Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry website, I came across a photo of a guy (Gunnar) and a dog (Balto) taken on this day in 1925. Their names didn’t ring any bells so I looked ‘em up.

Turns out, a Norski/Alaskan named Gunnar Kaasen and his dog sled team, led by a Siberian Husky named Balto, were instrumental in stopping a children’s diphtheria epidemic in Nome, Alaska.

In brief (and in legend): a nascent diphtheria epidemic was detected in Nome in January of 1925, but all the serum for the disease was in Anchorage, over 500 miles away. There weren’t a lot of planes around in those days and the one that could be found that could even conceivably make the trip was hors de combat. So it was decided to send the serum via a dog sled relay across the country.

The serum got to Gunnar and Balto on February 2, in a settlement about 55 miles from Nome. The plan was that they’d take the serum about 35 miles to Port Safety where it’d be handed off to a fresh team for the final 25-mile sprint to Nome. However, thanks to some miscommunication or something, Gunnar, Balto and the rest of their team completed the journey themselves, arriving in Nome ahead of schedule and saving the day. Ta-dah! Good story, right? If you liked it, wait until you hear the story of Togo, coming your way another day.

Of the Gunnar/Balto duo, Balto achieved the most fame. He did a successful one-night stand at Madison Square Garden, worked the vaudeville circuit and got a statue in Central Park. And another likeness in Anchorage. As in all such stories, Balto hit the skids for a while but made a final comeback as an honored attraction at the Cleveland Zoo. Not ideal, of course, but probably better than the LA freak show from which he was "rescued."

So, after heroics and fame, Gunnar eventually settled in Everett, Wash., where he died in 1960. Balto died in the Cleveland Zoo in 1933. After he died, he was stuffed, mounted and apparently can still be seen in the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Which gives me the creeps and makes me kind of sad.

Nick began working at KNKX as a program host in the late 1980’s and, with the exception of a relatively brief hiatus, has been with the station ever since. Along with his work as a Midday Jazz host, Nick worked for several years as KNKX’s Music Director. He is now the station’s Production Manager and also serves as a fill-in host on KNKX’s jazz and blues programs.