Unalaska, Heroic Dog of Antarctica and Ouachita Parish
Member of Admiral Byrd’s expedition perished in Monroe
All untimely deaths are sad, especially those that happen far from home. One such incident from the annals of state history, though, plucks at the heartstrings more than most. The victim, an accomplished explorer on a tour of the United States, had traveled all the way from his birthplace in Canada’s Northwest Territories to the South Pole and back, only to die in Monroe, Louisiana, in January of 1931. He was a veteran of Admiral Richard Byrd’s first Antarctic exhibition, an eight-year-old sled dog named Unalaska.
At that time, it wasn’t unheard of for noteworthy dogs to tour the country. Balto, one of the Siberian huskies whose famous 1925 race across Alaska, delivering diphtheria antitoxin more than six hundred miles through winter storms to the illness-stricken town of Nome, became the route for the Iditarod, spent two years on the vaudeville circuit after his triumphant run. (When an Ohio fan discovered that conditions in the dime-show life were substandard, funds were raised to purchase Balto and move him to the Cleveland Zoo, where he spent the last six years of his life in comfort. A life-sized statue of Balto was erected in New York’s Central Park, and much later, he became the inspiration for a trilogy of animated movies: Balto, Balto II: Wolf Quest, and Balto III: Wings of Change, the last two of which went straight to video.) Tom Pratt, a husky who was actually born in Antarctica during Byrd’s second expedition there in 1933, enjoyed some celebrity upon his return, too: postcards bearing his likeness and declaring him a “hero dog” were distributed, and he traveled the country alongside his master, expedition member Lt. Charles Lofgren. Blizzard, another Byrd husky, was exhibited at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair before retiring.
Byrd’s first expedition to the South Pole, comprising three planes, two ships, a Boy Scout who had won a contest, forty-two men, ninety-five dogs, and, at least according to one report, forty tons of dog biscuits, made base camp on the Ross Ice Shelf in early 1929. There was plenty of media attention paid to the four-legged members of the group. In March of 1928, for example, the New York Times had published a long feature on the sled teams in training for the trek, with the all-caps headline THESE DOGS WILL BRAVE THE ANTARCTIC. Three Harvard students, reporter Mary Lee wrote, had been chosen to help veteran “dog-puncher” Arthur Walden, who’d been training sled dogs since the Klondike Gold Rush days and would preside over the expedition’s canine teams. (Walden, Lee wrote, was “a compact, wiry man, alert from the tips of his reindeer moccasins to the peak of his fur helmet.”)
In 1929, the Times reported, a pair of Pittsburgh dogs were brought to a local radio station to help with a special broadcast to Byrd’s Little America base camp on the Ross Shelf; the dogs barked into the microphone to offer “a radio greeting to the huskies with the Antarctic expedition.” And in spring 1930, when Byrd returned, the nation’s paper of record wrote: “To dog lovers who have followed the Byrd Antarctic Expedition, it was a relief to learn that all surviving sledge dogs were passengers when the City of New York [Byrd’s ship] cast off her moorings.” (Byrd’s pet dog, a fox terrier named Igloo who joined the expedition purely as a companion, got plenty of ink as well.)
. . .schools were closed early so that the children of Monroe could attend the dog’s formal burial.
By the end of 1930, expedition member Carroll B. Foster and Unalaska the dog were on the road with a traveling presentation about the South Polar trip. They’d planned to spend two weeks in Monroe, speaking with local schoolchildren and exhibiting items brought back from the icy hinterlands. Tragedy struck on January 3, 1931, when Foster was exercising Unalaska and another dog, Lady, in Forsythe Park; as reported on the Associated Press wire later that day, Unalaska dashed across a street and was hit by a car, fatally. The driver was never identified.
Unalaska’s death and subsequent burial in Monroe was a national story, followed closely by local Louisiana papers with headlines like “Monroe Weeps for Dead Dog” from the Shreveport Times and “Honor is Paid to Intrepid Dog,” from the Monroe News-Star. On January 6, 1931, schools were closed early so that the children of Monroe could attend the dog’s formal burial on the grounds of the American Legion Home; more than four thousand watched the beloved animal laid to rest, with an honor guard of Boy Scouts and Foster giving the eulogy.
After Unalaska’s burial, the children of Monroe began a campaign to raise funds for a proper memorial. One interested citizen donated enough in one gift for an impressive bronze marker. In July 1931, a ceremony was held to unveil it, with an inscription from Byrd himself calling the dog “a great leader and a true friend.” The day after, a letter from Unalaska’s musher on the expedition was published in the News-Star, explaining the dog’s breeding (he was part “Siberian wolf,” St. Bernard, “Eskimo husky,” and setter) and his character.
“He had dog control and could boss his team and at the same time command their respect,” wrote Lt. A. Innes-Taylor. “He was the only leader known to me that could handle four timber wolves at the same time in one team. I estimate that in all, Unalaska led his teams over 5,000 miles. He could foresee danger and not once did he lead his teams into dangerous places.”
Unalaska’s story doesn’t end there. Soon after the memorial, a seven-hundred-pound rough-cut boulder with the bronze plaque affixed, was put up, it was reportedly stolen from the American Legion grounds—the work, it was rumored, of legion members who felt that only human veterans ought to be buried in that hallowed ground. Unalaska’s body was exhumed and moved to the grounds of what was then the Georgia Tucker Ele-mentary School, is now a construction site, and will soon be The Gardens at Georgia Tucker Assisted Living Community—where a flat stone marker carved with his likeness still marks the spot today.
Alison Fensterstock shares her home with a Louisiana-born Siberian Husky named Ziggy.