Snowshoe Thompson is the most famous skier to come out the California gold rush days. Here’s a look at his fascinating life.
In 1855 mail service over the Sierras in the winter was simply uncertain. Things, indeed, looked bleak when, a strapping young Norwegian immigrant appeared on the scene. Within a short time, this young, blond Norseman would be celebrated throughout the Sierras — and become one of the most famous cross-country skiers of all time. His reputation and legend would grow by leaps, and, in time, the facts and fiction of his life would become so intermixed that it would become difficult, if not impossible, by modern historians to separate the two.
His name was John A. Thompson. To the admiring residents of the Sierras, however, he was known simply as Snowshoe Thompson. He immigrated with his family from Norway when he was 10 years old. In 1851, at the age of 24, Thompson arrived in California. It was just 3 years after gold had been discovered, and the mountains were crawling with recent arrivals. Prospectors had spread out all over the Sierras and more strikes were being made, particularly in a lovely region of the Sierras to the west of Lake Tahoe. It was here in a swath of mountainous country between Sacramento and Reno—60 miles to the north and south of present day Interstate 80—that Thompson would make his mark.
The striking, blue-eyed Thompson had dabbled at mining in Placerville and farming near Sacramento, but, like many in those days, he was always on the look-out for other employment opportunities. Too, he had the constitution and inclinations of his Viking heritage, and a job with an adventurous slant would undoubtedly pique his interest. According to some writers, it was an ad in the Sacramento Union in 1855 that led him to the profession which would open to the door to fame: “People Lost to the World; Uncle Sam Needs a Mail Carrier”
The mail route referred to in the Union’s ad was between Placerville, 50 miles to the east of Sacramento, to Mormon Station, 25 miles southwest to Carson City, Nevada. The total distance of the route: 90 miles, all the way, from one side of the Sierras to the other.
Thompson got the job. His first run would be in early January, and for it, he planned to use skis, a method of winter travel he had learned as a boy in Norway. The term “skis,” however, had not come into usage yet. They were called “Norwegian Skates” by the Sacramento Union. What we now know as snowshoes were called “webs,” “Indian Snowshoes” or “Canadian Snowshoes.”
Relying on his boyhood memory, Thompson constructed his first set of Norwegian skates out of a freshly cut—and very green—oak plank. As you can imagine, they were monstrosities. Thompson weighed them when he got to Placerville and they tipped the scales at 25 pounds. He eventually got the weight down on subsequent pairs, but, even so, the skis of the 1800’s were still formidable in size. In a newspaper article some years later, Thompson described the dimensions of his skis: 9 feet long, 4 inches wide at the tip and narrowing to 3 1/2 inches. Thickness: 1 1/2 inches.
The Sacramento Union announced that first famous trip: “Mr. John A. Thompson left Carson Valley on Tuesday morning and reached this city at noon yesterday. He was three days and a half in coming through from Carson Valley. On January 3, 1855, he left the settlement behind and disappeared into the mountains. A short while later, he was back. He had done it! And far faster than anyone imagined. When he later arrived at Sacramento, his total return time from Carson Valley was an amazing three and half days. Snowshoe Thompson, a moniker that he would pick up over the next few years, had proven that skis were an efficient and suitable mode of winter transportation in the mountains.
He regularly made the journey twice a month through the rest of the winter. His pack, weighing from 60 to 80 pounds, included mail, newspapers, periodicals, ore samples, and medicines. UPS and FedEx can’t claim any originality when it comes to express service plans. Thompson long beat them to it, instituting 2-day and 3-day service. He could run the 90-mile Placerville to Carson Valley leg in 3 days and reverse journey in 2 days.
The Sacramento Union reported that during the winter of 1856-1857, most of his 31 crossings of the Sierras were on skis. That second winter appears to be the high water mark in Thompson’s trans-Sierra ski express. In 1858, he was again carrying the mail, but with improved wagon roads, he was now using horse-drawn sleighs. He continued, however, to use skis when the roads could not be broken. For the next two decades of his life, he used Norwegian skates on and off for other shorter mail routes and for privately contracted express service.