Today the high Sierra is renowned for its massive snowpack, often more than 20 feet in a winter season that stretches six or seven months. This skier’s bounty wasn’t always welcome, though. In the mid-1800s, snows routinely closed the passes for months, leaving settlers and miners in what is now eastern Nevada completely isolated from the outside world.
The mail simply couldn’t get through, until Norwegian-born John Thompson agreed to carry it 90 miles each way through the Sierra Nevada, from Placerville, Calif., to Mormon Station, Utah (now Genoa, Nevada). He showed up for the job carrying a pair of 10-foot oak planks, what we would call skis today. Thompson called them snowshoes.
For the next 20 years, he would make the 180-mile round-trip twice each month, three days out and two back, carrying an 80-pound mailbag and little else. No blankets or tent, no map or compass, only matches and a bit of jerky and crackers. He wore a Mackinac jacket and broad-brimmed hat, and rubbed charcoal on his face to guard against snow blindness. He followed a route known as Johnson’s Cutoff, crossing 7,283-foot Echo Pass along a course roughly paralleling today’s U.S. Highway 50 from Placerville to South Lake Tahoe. The circuit included more than 10,000 vertical feet of climbing and 10,000 feet of often harrowing descents, much of it on steep wooded terrain. Thompson did this for 20 years in all manner of weather and snow conditions and, if we are to believe his considerable legend, never once lost his way.
The round-trip took him only five days.
Thompson carried the U.S. mail for two decades and never got a dime from the federal government for his trouble. History has been more generous to him than the Postal Service, and today he’s remembered as the father of California skiing, even if his nickname, Snowshoe Thompson, is a bit of a misnomer.
In Thompson’s time, “snowshoe” was a catch-all term, encompassing both the webbed “Canadian snowshoes” and the less-common Scandinavian-style skis variously called “Norwegian snowshoes” or “Norwegian skates.” Thompson was a master of the latter discipline, said to have regularly sped down long grades at more than 50 miles per hour. “It has been attested,” one chronicler hedged, “that on one occasion he sailed off a cliff 180 feet in height, and came down standing up.” Stories told in gold rush saloons are best taken with a grain of salt, even if they later found their way into newspapers and books. From the distance of 150 years it’s difficult to parse fact from fancy, but just the exploits we know to be true place John “Snowshoe” Thompson firmly among the greatest skiers of all time.
Thanks to Kenneth Bjork’s exhaustive dive into contemporary news reports on behalf of the Norwegian-American Historical Society, we know Thompson regularly made the 180-mile roundtrip through the Sierra Nevada, in winter, without so much as a blanket for protection. We know that he carried loads as heavy as 100 pounds, bringing everything from mail to medicine to communities that frequently had no other contact for months. And we know that he saved the lives of at least four men, including one rescue operation in which he traveled 400 miles on skis and 100 on horseback in just 10 days.
We know that he was born Jon Torsteinson Rue on a farm in Norway’s Telemark region on April 30, 1827. His father died when he was a boy, and that Thompson emigrated to the United States with his mother and brother when he was ten years old. The family homesteaded first in Illinois, then Missouri and Iowa. After his mother died, Thompson moved on to Wisconsin and then California, arriving in 1852 at the height of the Gold Rush.
He tried his hand at mining without much success, and soon turned to farming near Placerville in the Sierra foothills. In 1855, when he was 28 years old, an advertisement in the Sacramento Union caught his eye. “Uncle Sam Needs a Mail Carrier,” blared the headline. No one, it seemed, had been able to carry the mail over the Sierras in winter with any kind of regularity.
After reading the ad, Thompson went home and made a pair of skis. Cut from green oak and patterned on his childhood memories, his first “snowshoes” were a clumsy rendition of the traditional skis used in his native Norway. Used with a single long pole for pushing, braking and balance, each 10-foot plank sported a lone leather strap for a binding. Thompson practiced a bit to regain his proficiency—he hadn’t been on skis since leaving Norway nearly two decades before—then presented himself to the postmaster.
The last man to cross the pass in winter had needed eight days to reach Genoa on webbed snowshoes. Thompson made the outbound trip in three days, and the return leg in two, carrying more than 50 pounds of mail and sundries on his back, with a pair of skis that weighed 25 pounds. He would maintain that schedule for the next 20 years, though he did eventually fashion lighter skis. In their final iteration Thompson’s sticks were about nine feet long, four inches wide at the tips and narrowing to about three inches at the strap. He likely carved them from well-dried spruce or fir, which had become the preferred materials as Norwegian skates gained popularity in the mining camps through the 1860s.
Thompson preferred to travel in the early morning and late afternoon, when the snow was crusted in ice and fast. Though he stuck to a firm delivery timetable, on the trail he let conditions dictate when he traveled and rested. He often moved at night, when in the words of frontier newsman Dan DeQuille, he “looked to the stars, as does a mariner to his compass.” He followed no set course, for “in a trackless waste of snow there was no path to follow.” We can only imagine the powder days he experienced, and the Sierra cement through which he slogged. During the day the snow would often grow heavy and clump on his skis. He knew nothing of the waxes, or “dope” that other skiers of the era were experimenting with, so when the snow slowed down, he’d rest. When conditions were good he made time.
He slept wherever he stopped, sometimes in a cave or beneath overhanging rocks, sometimes in abandoned cabins. Frequently he would make a couch of green pine boughs on the snow around a dead stump, which he would set alight for warmth.
He seemed to thrive in country that broke other men. Of one 1856 encounter, Eliot Lord wrote that Thompson overtook four men from Placerville who “had advanced only 10 miles in three days and had not as yet fairly entered the snow belt. As the light-footed courier slid past they asked him despondingly whether they were almost through the snow. ‘There are 45 miles more of it,’ he cried back, without slackening pace.”
One midnight in December of that year, Thompson arrived at a seemingly deserted cabin where he found a man lying alone on the floor, “without other covering than the clothes he wore, and the boots frozen to his feet,” according to the Sacramento Union’s account. The man was James Sisson, and he’d been lying there for 12 days with nothing to sustain him but raw flour.
It’s worth noting that Sisson had come to grief on the same route Thompson crossed routinely. He’d been on the trail two weeks when a storm caught him, and had been fortunate to reach the abandoned cabin where Thompson found him.
Sisson’s feet were badly frostbitten and gangrene had set in. At a glance, Thompson knew they would have to be amputated or the man would die. The next morning was Christmas Eve. Thompson left before dawn and reached Genoa on Christmas Day, where he rallied five men to ski back to the cabin and haul Sisson out on a sled. It was hard going, with a blizzard for good measure, but on the 28th, “they packed Mr. Sisson on the sled, and thus, with great labor, succeeded in conveying him safely to Carson Valley.”
There was no anesthetic in the valley, so Thompson left without delay on the 90-mile run to Placerville, where he found no chloroform and continued another 45 miles on horseback to Sacramento. There he secured the needed medicine and returned immediately to Genoa. All told, in the space of 10 days Thompson traveled some 500 miles, 400 of them by ski or on foot. Sisson survived, and in fact would outlive Thompson by many years.
In 1859, Thompson rescued three men who had left Strawberry Station in a blizzard. He found them eight miles up the pass. One by one he brought them down on the backs of his skis. A quick bit of math puts the rescue in perspective: Thompson skied eight miles to find them, then three 16-mile round trips to bring the men to safety. That’s 56 miles, almost half of it with an exhausted man on the back of his skis.
One of the party later described the rescue to a newspaperman, who related the tale with perhaps a gloss of embellishment. “Howard was a wreck,” Lucky Baldwin recounted. “He put his feet on the back of Thompson’s snowshoes and his arms around Thompson’s neck, and away they slid, down the eight miles to Strawberry.
“It was slow work for Thompson to come back, and our hopes were just about to zero when his ‘Hello’ brought us back to life. Thompson made these three round trips without a kick. I’ve traveled all the ways there are to travel, from elephant-back in India, jinrikishas in Japan and the fastest coach-and-eight in California, but that ride on the back of Thompson’s snowshoes was the fastest and most exciting in my life.”
Not all of Thompson’s exploits were so laudable. In 1860 he joined a posse of self-styled rangers in a punitive raid against the Paiute, after men from that tribe killed a number of white settlers, likely with good cause. The 105 volunteers were a motley crowd, poorly armed, ill-disciplined and frequently drunk. The Paiute baited them into an ambush and killed 76 of the vigilantes in a matter of minutes. Thompson’s horse was shot out from under him and he fled on foot. As he ran a horse overtook him, but instead of a hostile Paiute warrior it carried only an empty saddle. Thompson swung aboard and made his escape–one of just 19 white survivors of the Battle of Pyramid Lake.
The episode is rarely mentioned in most accounts of Thompson’s life, based as they are on an 1876 story written by DeQuille of Virginia City, Nevada’s Territorial Enterprise. A character in his own right, DeQuille was Mark Twain’s first editor, wrote the definitive history of the Comstock strike, and defined Thompson’s legacy in a single paragraph.
“Mounted upon his shoes—which were not unlike thin sled runners in appearance—and with his long balance-pole in his hands, he dashed down the sides of mountains at such a fearful rate of speed as to cause many to characterize the performance as foolhardy. Not a few of his old friends among the miners begged him to desist, swearing roundly that he would dash his brains out against a tree, or plunge over some precipice and break his neck. But Thompson only laughed at their fears. With his feet firmly braced, and his balance-pole in his hands, he flew down the mountain slopes, as much at home as an eagle soaring and circling above the neighboring peaks.”
That image forms the model for no fewer than four statues of Thompson in ski resorts and old mining camps across the Sierra. Three of the sculptures depict him in that soaring pose—knees bent, weight forward, nine-foot planks pointed straight down the fall line. DeQuille built him up like a matinee idol. “A man of splendid physique,” he wrote, who with his fair hair and blue eyes “looked a true descendant of the sea-roving Northmen of old.”
The journalist interviewed Thompson in 1876, at a time when the intrepid mailman was campaigning to get the federal government to compensate him for his years of faithful service. DeQuille and others reported that the Postal Service had never paid him, and it became part of Thompson’s legend that he’d carried the mail all those years for free, out of his generous spirit, or perhaps naïveté.
The truth seems a bit more complex. Thompson came to California seeking his fortune in gold, but appears always to have had a backup plan as well. When he first came west, he and his half-brother drove a small herd of dairy cows across the plains and sold the milk at exorbitant profits to the Forty-Niners, until the first winter when the cows starved.
When he wasn’t carrying mail across the snowy Sierra, Thompson farmed and cut firewood. As a hired laborer he helped build sawmills and a gristmill, and dug some of the first irrigation ditches in the region. For a number of years he hauled freight across the mountains on a mule-drawn sleigh.
Though he carried the mail without a federal contract, he earned at least a modest fee for his labor. He tried to collect a dollar a letter for his services, and though few paid that tariff his services as a private “expressman” were frequently in demand. Thompson famously carried the ore sample that kicked off the Comstock silver rush. The rock was assayed at $1,000 a ton in gold and $1,200 a ton in silver; Thompson earned $2 for carrying it across the mountains—his regular rate for a side-gig that must have added considerable weight to his pack. The Comstock Lode made a great many men very wealthy, but Snowshoe Thompson was not one of them.
After he married in 1863 and had a son, Thompson began to seek compensation more energetically. Finally, in 1874, he boarded a train to Washington D.C., armed with a petition signed by “all the state and other officials at Carson City” and determined to see that Congress paid him his due. The Central Pacific Railroad had crossed the Sierra five years earlier, and Thompson’s usefulness as a courier was beginning to wane. Rail travel still had its limitations though, as became apparent in the Rocky Mountains, where heavy drifts stopped the locomotive in its tracks.
Thompson disembarked and, carrying his suitcase, walked 100 miles in three days through the snow to Cheyenne, Wyoming, where he got another train to Washington. He wanted $6,000 in back pay, but Congress never heard his plea. Thompson waited in the capitol for six weeks until his money ran out, then went back to California. He never got a dime from the federal government.
Today he is celebrated with introducing skiing to California. According to many accounts, no one in the Golden State had ever seen a pair of skis when Thompson started carrying the mail on them on 1856. That seems unlikely. The mining camps were full of Norwegians and Swedes, and within a few years of Thompson’s first mail run, organized downhill races had become common.
The epicenter of this activity was Plumas County, about 100 miles north of Placerville. As early as 1863, just seven years after Thompson’s first run over Echo Pass, the La Porte Mountain Messenger reported on a trio of match races between rival mining companies, with the racers competing for “ten gallons of lager.” By 1867 the stakes were considerably higher, according to American Heritage magazine. “The Alturas Snow Shoe Club held a ‘world’s championship’ meet in February, 1867, and repeatedly for several years thereafter, with a silver studded belt (‘valued at $75’) as the first prize in the men’s finals.” (This tradition is alive and well in longboard skiing revivals that still take place at California resorts today, and according to Powder magazine, such setups could be extremely fast. “In 1964, on the occasion of Nevada’s Centennial, Plumas-native Jerry Burelle (on well-doped longboards) crushed U.S. Ski Team Olympic medalist Billy Kidd (on modern skis), writes Powder’s David Page.)
According to American Heritage, in 1869 Thompson “heard of the frivolous doings up Plumas County way, and it is likely that he considered the Alturas Club racers a bunch of upstarts . . . and decided to show them a thing or two. Alas, he had not counted on the refinements produced by competitive free enterprise.”
In particular, Thompson was ignorant of the fast-advancing and secret science of dope, in which racers anointed their skis with secret concoctions of beeswax, tallow, bear grease, pine tar, whale oil, bacon fat, and the like in order to make them run faster over the snow. Thompson also was disturbed to find the Alturas racecourse was a straight downhill run on packed snow. Unburdened by the need to turn, his opponents used much longer skis—some as long as 16 feet—with grooves cut in the bottom to help hold their line. Thompson’s un-doped nine-footers were no match on such a course. The great Snowshoe Thompson finished dead last.
He later challenged all-comers to a competition more suited to his skills, offering $1,000 to any man who could beat him in such worthy contests as jumping for distance off a 15-foot cliff, or racing “from the top of Silver Mountain Peak to the town of Silver Mountain. The altitude of the Peak is 11,000 feet, 4,000 feet above the town and distant four miles.”
No one took up the challenge.
Thompson went back to his mail route, his farm, and his fruitless lobbying campaign. In the spring of 1876 he was struck by abdominal pain so severe he couldn’t stand. That day he planted his barley from horseback. Two days later he was dead, likely of a burst appendix. He was 49 years old.