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Tahoe Nugget #47:

Snowshoe Thompson: Sierra's Skiing Mailman (3 photographs)

Out of all the skiers who have carved the slopes around Lake Tahoe, the most famous is undoubtedly John "Snowshoe" Thompson, the legendary skiing mailman of the Sierra Nevada. (In the 19th century skis were often called snowshoes in the California mining camps.)

Born Jon Torsteinson-Rue in Telemark, Norway, "John" was 10 years old when his family immigrated to the U.S. Midwest in 1837. In 1851, the 24-year-old farm boy was bit by gold fever and he ran off to California. He found no gold, but he did Americanize his name to John A. Thompson and settled in Placerville, about 30 miles east of Sacramento. Thompson farmed in the summer and cut commercial firewood in the winter. In 1855 Thompson saw an ad published in the Sacramento Union: People Lost to the World: Uncle Sam Needs Carrier. The Placerville postmaster needed someone to carry mail 90 miles east, up and over the Sierra range to Utah Territory, in the dead of winter. There weren't any takers until Thompson, who used to ski to school as a child in Norway, decided to answer the call to duty. It took him 3 days to ski across the rugged peaks and arrive in the settlement of Genoa, just south of present-day Carson City, Nevada. No one in the region had seen skis before Thompson showed them his homemade long boards and single brake pole.

Twice a month for 20 years Snowshoe hauled an 80-100 pound rucksack full of letters, newspapers, medicine, and other supplies through the mountains. His skis were 10 feet long and weighed 25 pounds. For personal protection, he carried only matches, some beef jerky, crackers and biscuits — no blanket, no gun, no camping gear or compass. Snowshoe rarely stopped and it took him only 48 hours to return to California with the lighter pack. He tried to charge $1 per letter, but some people wouldn't pay and demanded their mail anyway. Naive in the ways of government, he had not signed a contract with the U.S. Postal Service, but Thompson wasn't worried and said, "If I do my job and get the mail to the people, Uncle Sam will pay me." Unfortunately, Thompson was never paid despite an 1869 appeal by the Nevada Legislature to the federal government for $6000 in compensation.

Thompson's skiing ability was legendary. After famed Comstock journalist Dan De Quille watched Snowshoe perform, he wrote: "He flew down the mountainside. He did not ride astride his pole or drag it to one side as was the practice of other snowshoers, but held it horizontally before him after the manner of a tightrope walker. His appearance was graceful, swaying his balance pole to one side and the other in the manner that a soaring eagle dips its wings."

Photo #1: Snowshoe Thompson monument near Donner Pass. Note how Thompson held pole horizontally for balance, a unique style.
Photo #2: Thompson helped introduce skiing to the Sierra
Photo #3: The skiing mailman's eastern destination, Genoa, Nevada, lies at the base of the eastern Sierra range. His 90-mile return trip to California began with this climb up and into High Country. Snowshoe Thompson is buried in the Genoa Cemetery.

Nugget #47 A Snowshoe T. ID 600

Nugget #47 C Genoa Carson R. ID 650

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