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Tahoe Nugget #136

Snowshoe Thompson Spanked!
March 28, 2008

Earlier this week, Gary Noy, Director of the Center for Sierra Nevada Studies with Sierra College in Rocklin, California, asked me to locate some primary source material about the longboard races that were being held in the "Lost Sierra" of Plumas County in the mid-to-late 19th century. The college is putting together an anthology of Sierra history for an upcoming publication.

During a search through my ski history archives, I discovered the following article from the Downieville Mountain Messenger newspaper dated February 1869. I was well aware of this legendary contest between the noted skiing mailman, John "Snowshoe" Thompson, and the wild longboard racers of Plumas County, but this article really illuminates a bit about the attitude of the times and also provides some insight into Thompson's personality. You can read more about Snowshoe Thompson in Tahoe Nuggets #47 and #62.

The race between Thompson and the skiers from Plumas was held on February 22, 1869, at the La Porte racecourse. Thompson was riding on skis 7.5 feet long, while the local racers used skis nearly 14 feet long. The boys from Plumas stabbed the snow with their single poles to quickly propel themselves forward from the starting line and then immediately dropped into a tuck for maximum speed, while Thompson stood up for balance. Unaware of the secrets of doping skis for a fast glide, Thompson never had a chance and he was soundly beaten on the first day of a five-day competition series. Once you lose a heat, you're out of the races. Thompson did not take his loss lightly as you will see. The following article was published shortly after the race:

"Snow Shoe Thompson — It will be remembered that Thompson, the noted snowshoe traveler, who resides in Alpine County, was present during the first two days races at La Porte. When he left Alpine, the local newspaper gave him a puff and stated that if our boys allowed him to contest for the purses they would have to use their 'dope' freely to cope with him. [Dope was the wax-like mixture applied to the bottom of skis to increase speed.] We also hear that Thompson made his brag while on this trip that he intended to capture all the coin that was offered in purses; but unfortunately for him, our boys use 'dope;' Thompson didn't know anything about dope, consequently, when it came to racing with our riders, he had no more chance to win than a lame cow would have in a race with a locomotive."

Thompson, who was really riled up over his inglorious defeat, quickly told his side of the story to the Alpine Chronicle newspaper: "I did go to La Porte, expecting to see some scientific snow shoe racing, but I was disappointed it was nothing but 'dope racing,' and is unworthy of the name snow shoeing [skiing]. It is nothing more than a little improvement on coasting down hill on a sled. The improvement is, that instead of uprights and crossbars from one runner to the other, they make their legs and crotch answer this purpose and they have no more control over their shoes than a boy has over his sled. They have exhibited some skill in making dope, but all they gain in this is that they make about the same time on a hill of 15 degrees [slope] that a man would, without dope, on a hill of 30 degrees. These 'dope riders' at La Porte are good, clever fellows, but they have no more right to call themselves scientific snow-shoers than a man with steel skates on smooth ice, who has a spiked pole placed between his legs pushing himself straight ahead, should be called a scientific skater."

The reporter from the Mountain Messenger responded: "When Thompson was here, he admitted that he was disappointed, not only disappointed but surprised to learn that he was so far behind the times in snow shoeing. When he saw our boys run he thought it was 'scientific,' and so expressed himself. It was a little too much for him and he found out that 'dope was king.' Thompson returned to his home in Alpine County, and strange to relate, after he gets there, he comes to the conclusion that the style of snow-shoeing in Plumas and Sierra is unworthy the name, and school boy like, commences to make faces at our folks, (perhaps some of them will attempt the same child's play at him.) or in other words, when he finds himself about a thousand miles away, Thompson publishes through the columns of the Alpine Chronicle a challenge which reads thus:

[Thompson's hard-core challenge on his home turf is more like a modern "Iron Man" competition than a straight ski race, complete with cliff jumping, mountaineering and tree skiing.]

"Now, I, on behalf of the Alpine boys, make these propositions to the Plumas and Sierra boys, or 'any other man' in the State: Come to Alpine county next Winter and run with us. Will we run you for $1,000 a side for each one of the following: First — Against time; you to select your hillside, and then we will select ours. Second — Side by side [head-to-head]; we to select the hillside. Third — Over a precipice fifteen feet high without the use of a pole, the one jumping the farthest, without falling, to take the purse. Fourth — From the top to the bottom of the highest and heaviest timbered mountain you can find. Fifth and last — To run [ski] 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 town, and distant four miles."

BTW, I have no evidence that anyone ever agreed to Snowshoe Thompson's challenge, but I have little doubt that he would have won his Iron Man competition.

Photo #1: Woodcut etching of 19th century longboard ski race.  
Photo #2: Early longboarders show off tuck style that helped them exceed 100 mph! .
Photo #3: Snowshoe Thompson stood up in his losing effort.
Photo #4: "Dope is King!" Newspaper ad for 1869 race between Plumas County longboarders and Snowshoe Thompson.
Photo #5: Portrait of John "Snowshoe" Thompson shortly before his death in 1876, at age 49. He died of complications from appendicitis.

 Nugget #136 A Longboard race course

Nugget #136 B Longboarders in tuck

Nugget #136 C Longboarders woodcut 3 guys011

Nugget #136 D Dope is King!

Nugget #136 E Thompson portrait

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