There are legends, and then there is John “Snowshoe” Thompson, who delivered mail in the rugged and snow-covered Sierra-Nevada Mountains in the dead of winter for 20 grueling years.
Looking back on Snowshoe Thompson’s amazing devotion to the backwoods, it’s hard to imagine anyone still covering 90 miles through blizzards with 80 mile-per-hour winds and snowdrifts up to 50 feet high. Yet, from 1856 to 1876, Snowshoe Thompson made this amazing trek between two and four times per month – every month during the winter.
Born in the town of Tinn in Telemark County Norway, Jon Torsteinson-Rue would later change his name to John A. Thompson. At the age of 10, he came to America with his family, settling on a farm in Illinois. They moved to several mid-western states over the next few years. Then, in the late 1840s, gold fever struck out west. In 1851, at the age of 24, Thompson drove a herd of dairy cows to California, settling in Placerville. He eventually bought a small farm at Putah Creek in the Sacramento Valley.
It was four years later, in 1855 when Thompson saw an advertisement in the Sacramento Union newspaper that caught his eye: “People Lost to the World; Uncle Sam Needs a Mail Carrier.” Thompson would become the only winter mail link across the Sierra for the next two decades until rail lines were eventually laid through the peaks.
“Snowshoe Thompson passed us daily, carrying the mail between Meadow Lake City and Cisco,” wrote Clarence Wooster in the California Historical Society Quarterly in 1939. “We would watch him sail down this four-mile course at great speed, cross the ice-frozen river, throw our mail toward the house and glide out of sight, up and over a hill.”
Judging by this description, Thompson was obviously not wearing the snowshoes that we know today. While growing up in Norway, ski-shaped snowshoes called ski-skates were as common as ordinary shoes. However, Thompson’s handmade oak skis weighed 25 pounds and were 10 feet long. Some people back then called his skis Norwegian snowshoes, hence the nickname Snowshoe.
Thompson was best known for carrying the mail from Placerville to Genoa, Nevada, a 90-mile trek that follows part of modern Highway 50. Dan DeQuille, a Nevada newspaperman who was also a contemporary of Mark Twain, wrote of Thompson, “He was able to go from Carson Valley to Placerville in two days, making 45 miles a day. Not a house was then found in all that distance. Between the two points was all wilderness. It was a Siberia snow.”
DeQuille later reported that Thompson skied until tired and made camp wherever he found himself. “Stretched upon his bed of boughs, with his feet to his fire, and his head resting upon one of Uncle Sam’s mailbags, he slept as soundly as if occupying the best bed ever made; though, perhaps, beneath his couch, there was a depth of from 10 to 30 feet of snow,” DeQuille wrote.
Thompson’s mail sack often weighed between 60 and 100 pounds. In addition to mail, he also delivered medicine, emergency supplies, clothing, books, tools, and pots and pans. In the backwoods, Snowshoe came to expect the unexpected. He often rescued prospectors caught in the snow and would carry them out on the back of his skis as they held their arms around him.
Much as his Viking ancestors had traveled upon unmarked waters, Snowshoe Thompson crossed the Sierra Mountains, whose landmarks were buried in the snow. He didn’t use a compass, once stating in an interview, “There is no danger of getting lost in a narrow range of mountains like the Sierra if a man has his wits about him.” He could tell his direction by day, from the appearance of trees and rocks, the flow of the streams, animal tracks, and snowdrifts. By night, the formation of stars guided him.
Though Thompson’s devotion to his adopted country stemmed from a handshake when he accepted the job delivering mail, in the end, the U.S. government never honored his lifelong service to the country. In spite of a resolution sent to Washington, D.C. by the Nevada Legislature, the many political contacts he had gathered, and a trip to the nations’ capital in 1872 when he petitioned Congress for a $6,000 pension, Snowshoe Thompson was never paid for his services delivering the United States mail.
He died of appendicitis at the age of 49 on May 15, 1876, and was buried in the cemetery in Genoa. His wife, Agnes, had a snow-white marble stone erected on Snowshoe’s grave with a pair of crossed skis and the inscription “Gone but not forgotten.”
Remembering Snowshoe Thompson
On June 23, 2001, a magnificent statue of John Snowshoe Thompson was dedicated in Genoa, Nevada. The bigger-than-life statue contains a large piece of granite in its base that was sent from Snowshoe’s birthplace in Tinn, Telemark, Norway. More than 30 relatives from Thompson’s hometown in Norway and many others from across the United States came to Genoa for the celebration.
On that momentous day, Gene Estensen reflected on Thompson, “Why is it that we are attracted to this place? Why is it that we have come so far to witness the unveiling of a monument to Snowshoe Thompson? It is more than a monument, it is a reminder. It is a reminder of the hardships endured by our ancestors from Norway as they set forth for a place they called ‘Amerika.’ This monument represents your ancestors as well as mine. We have been drawn to this place on this day to honor a hero and a legend of the old west.”
The annual Snowshoe Thompson Cross Country Ski/Snowshoe Tour takes place every March. In 2006, the 11th annual event will be held on March 11 at the Hope Valley Outdoor Center, 1⁄2 miles east of the Highway 88/89 junction. Members will lead a tour and give a presentation on Snowshoe Thompson’s historic mail route. For more information on the event, contact the Firest of Snowshoe Thompson at 877-819-4225.
According to Sue Knight of the Genoa Friends of Snowshoe Thompson committee, the legendary snowshoer/skier is remembered each April in his hometown of Tinn, Telemark, Norway. “For the last 20 years there has been a celebration honoring Snowshoe Thompson in Norway,” she said. For next year’s event, it will be held on Palm Sunday in April 2006, Knight and several others will travel to Tinn for the event.
Thompson’s fame also lives on in several other locations. His skis are in the El Dorado County History Museum in California; other effects are in a museum in Genoa, Nevada; a statue of him stands at Boreal Ridge in California; a plaque dedicated in Los Angeles; and there is even a Snowshoe Thompson Lodge of the Sons of Norway in Yuba City, California.
Though Snowshoe Thompson departed this world nearly 130 years ago, his legacy will live on for years to come.
This article originally appeared in Snowshoe Magazine, Collector’s Edition, Winter 2005. If interested in purchasing a copy of the collector’s edition, please contact us.