Placerville, CA

Snowshoe Thompson Left Some Big Skis to Fill

The three-metre-long skis of Snowshoe Thompson

The home-made, three-metre long skis of Snowshoe Thompson, who wore them for 20 years, carrying mail over the Sierra Nevada mountains, through blizzards and ice storms, for the U.S. Postal Service, which never paid him.
MITCHELL SMYTH/Meridian Writers’ Group

ON A WALL in a museum here in the cradle of California’s Gold Rush country hangs a pair of homemade skis. Nearby, there’s a picture of a stern-looking bearded man.

Together they recall the story of John “Snowshoe” Thompson, a man who, against all odds, carried the mail—and much more—over the Sierra Nevada mountain range every winter, through blizzards and ice storms, for 20 years. Along the way, he became a gold-country legend—but he never received a nickel from the U.S. Postal Service.

“What we call skis now were called snowshoes here in those days,” says Mary Cory, director of the El Dorado County Historical Museum. “That’s how he got his nickname.

“He had learned cross-country skiing in his native Norway, so when he saw a newspaper advertisement seeking someone to deliver mail [from Placerville] over the summit to Genoa, Nevada, he said he could do it.

“He carved his first pair of skis, 10 feet [three metres] long, from wood from an old barn and in January 1856 he set off.” (It’s those skis, with one broken tip patched, that are in the museum.)

The miners in Placerville and the other Gold Rush boomtowns placed bets that he’d never make it, but three days and 145 kilometres later he skied into Genoa with his 36-kilogram pack. The return journey took two days.

And so it went on, twice monthly, every winter till 1876. Thompson skied through blizzards and snow up to 15 metres deep, eating crackers and dried beef, drinking snow water he melted with his hands. After the trans-continental railway opened in 1869, carrying mail coast to coast, he continued his run, delivering packages for private clients. During the summer he worked his small farm near Placerville.

“In 1872 he applied for payment for the mail run but was told he’d never signed a contract,” says Cory. “The Post Office said he got his money from delivering his private packages.”

But Snowshoe Thompson was more than just a carrier of letters and packages. He was often literally a lifesaver, bringing medication to snowbound mountain cabins.

Once, the story goes, he found a prospector suffering from frostbite. He carried the man to Genoa, then went over the mountain to Sacramento for chloroform and brought it to the doctor, who amputated the man’s legs. Thompson had skied 640 kilometres in 10 days and saved a man’s life.

“And he was a reporter,” says Cory. “He brought news of snow conditions and notable happenings in gold country to Genoa where it was sent on to newspapers east of the Sierra.”

When silver was discovered in Virginia City, Nevada—the famed Comstock Lode—it was Snowshoe Thompson who carried the first samples to the assayers in Sacramento. That’s how the world first found out how valuable the Comstock was and triggered the Nevada silver rush.

Thompson made his last run over the Sierra in March 1876. He died from appendicitis and pneumonia two months later, aged 49. He and his wife and son, who died aged 11, are buried in Genoa.



For more information on the El Dorado County Historical Museum visit its website at http://museum.edcgov.us.

For information on travel in California go to the California Travel and Tourism Commission website at www.visitcalifornia.com.