Snow-shoe Thompson
by Paul Richins, Jr.

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The folloing article was compiled and edited by Paul Richins from the following excellent sources: "Sports in California: The Birth of Ski Racing in the California Gold Rush," Robert E. Bleese; "Dan De Quille, The Washoe Giant: A Biography and Anthology," prepared by Richard Dwyer and Richard Lingenfelter; "A Treasure of the Sierra Nevada," Robert Leonard Reid; and, "History of the Sierra Nevada," Francis P. Farquhar.

Skiing in California began with the Norwegian gold prospectors in the 1850’s. Norwegian sailors, who jumped ship in San Francisco to find their fortunes in gold, introduced skiing to the miners in the Johnsville and La Porte area. Informal downhill ski races were held as early as 1853. La Porte became the racing capitol of California and the Alturas Snow Shoe Club, the first organized ski club in the world, was formed in 1867. Their racing skis were approximately 12 feet long, 4 inches wide and 1 1/4 inches thick in the middle. A single pole, sharpened at one end was used for balance and speed control. 

The legendary John C. Thomson was the most famous. In January 1856, Snow-shoe Thompson began a remarkable series of trips across the Sierra on skis, which continued for twenty winters. By the mid-1850’s mail was being transported over the Sierra Nevada by horseback and mule and later by wagon. But with each winter, heavy snows blocked the flow of mail, except for the mail carried by Snow-shoe Thompson. From 1856 until his death at age 49 in 1876, he braved the winter storms on his ten foot long skis, called snowshoes at the time. He made his skis from recollections of his boyhood in Norway. His skis were very cumbersome and crude by today’s standards. Snow-shoe Thompson’s first skis were made from green oak and were about ten feet long and six inches wide, weighting 25 pounds!

The weight of his mail bags were normally 60-80 pounds, but often weighed over 100 pounds. His first trip was made from Placerville to Carson Valley a distance of 90 miles. Having successfully completed the trip to Carson Valley and back, he became a necessity—the communication link between the east coast states and California. No matter how bad the weather or how deep the snow, Snow-shoe Thompson never failed to bring the mail over the Sierra Nevada. Typically, he covered the 90 mile one-way trip in about 3 days, traveling during the day as well as at night. He carried no blankets, nor did he even wear a heavy overcoat, relying on his exertions to keep him warm while traveling, and on campfires at night. His principal route was from Placerville to Carson Valley and back. At first he used the Placerville-Johnson-Luther Pass route, but later the Big Tree route to Hope Valley, where both routes continued down Carson Canyon to Genoa. He also carried the mail from his home in Genoa, Nevada (Carson Valley) to Murphy’s Camp via Woodfords, Markleeville, Hermit Valley and the Big Trees.

There are many tales of his wintery experiences, saving lives and rescuing lost travelers. He was never lost, nor did he ever suffer a mishap, even in the most violent blizzards. He rarely received any compensation for his services--many promises, but little cash. "He took pride in the work," writes his biographer. "It challenged the spirit of adventure within him. It was like going forth to battle, and each successive trip was a victory. His equal in his peculiar line will probably never again be seen. The times and conditions are gone that called men possessing the special qualifications that made him famous. It would be hard to find another man combining his courage, physique, and powers of endurance…"

John A. Thomson was born in Norway in 1827 and came to the U.S. when he was ten years old and came to California at age twenty-four. He is buried in Genoa, Nevada, in the Carson Valley.

Backcountry_Resource_Center--Paul Rcichins, Jr.

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