Balto portrays the husky that led the dog-sled team on the last two legs of a grueling 1925 journey to deliver diphtheria antitoxin from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska. (The only pilot considered capable of flying through the unpredictable Alaskan winter happened to be in the Lower 48 at the time.) Twenty mushers covered almost 700 miles in about six days, despite blizzard conditions, winds up to 80 mph and temperatures that rarely topped 40 degrees below zero.
The granite rock on which Balto stands bears a plaque with a low relief of a dog-sled team racing through a blizzard and the inscription:
Dedicated to the indomitable spirit of the sled dogs that relayed antitoxins 660 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.
Balto was the first sculpture in New York to honor a dog, and is well-loved and well-rubbed by children visiting Central Park.
Contestants in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, held annually in March, journey 1,150 miles from Anchorage to Nome, over mountains, tundra and frozen rivers, through dense forests and along the wind-scoured Alaskan coast. Typically the winner arrives in Nome nine to twelve days after the start of the race.
The Race is not only a reminder of Balto's 1925 run but a commemoration of the historic Iditarod Trail, cleared in 1910 to allow access to the gold strike at Iditarod. By the late 1920s airplanes made long-distance dog-sledding obsolete, and the Trail returned to nature until cleared for the Iditarod Race in the 1960s. The official Iditarod site has a map of the Trail and much historical background.
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 he was chief sculptor for the New York City Department of Parks under the Works Progress Administration.
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.
Roth later served as president of the prestigious National Sculpture Society.