Neither sleet nor snow — nor blinding blizzard nor grizzly bears — could deter this determined Norwegian American from meeting his appointed rounds.
Nothing could stop Snowshoe Thompson. No blizzard was severe enough, no amount of cold frigid enough to make him call it quits. He was the only man to regularly carry the mail between the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada and the foothill mining communities of California between 1856 and 1876, the year of his death.
Until he applied for the job, the mining towns had been cut off from the rest of the world during the winter. This was hard on men who had been separated from their families for many months, even years. Urgent messages, important business correspondence and news, could not reach them until the snow-clogged mountain passes thawed in late spring. By then it was often too late.
John Thompson was born in the town of Tinn, in Telemark County, Norway in 1827. He immigrated to the United States in 1837, and by 1852, at the age of 25, found himself seeking his fortune in the gold fields of California. This way of life, however, did not suit his temperament.
He quickly abandoned the miner's life and bought a ranch in the Sacramento Valley. But he couldn't stop gazing up at the mountains from his homestead in the flatlands. Sierra magic had him under its spell. He had to find a way to live up in the mountains for which he yearned.
In January of 1856, Thompson noticed an ad in the Sacramento Union, which read: "People lost to the world. Uncle Sam needs mail carrier."
Struck by a bolt of inspiration, Thompson quickly grabbed an ax and chopped down an oak. Before long, he had carved a pair of skis, each weighing over 12 pounds. These primitive skis were cumbersome, but he was strong and used to heavy physical exertion. Next, he set out to prove to himself and the doubting Thomases that they would work.
His first test took place in Placerville, witnessed by a group of puzzled, disbelieving miners. One warned, "You'll wind up knocking your brains out against a tree." Unfazed, he glided through the forest and slid down the hill, becoming California's pioneer skier.
Impressing the miners was one thing; overcoming the postmaster's skepticism would be something else. He mapped out a proposed route from Genoa to Placerville. Thompson knew it presented him with every imaginable challenge. But he was tough and had experience guiding in the mountains. He had hiked to many of the mining camps. He knew his way over the passes, and he knew of miner's cabins and caves for shelter.
He was confident he could make it, so he wasted no time applying for the job.
His enthusiasm and confidence were lost on his prospective employer, who took one look at Thompson's equipment and hook his head.
"Even men with mule teams fail to make the trip over the Sierra in the dead of winter." He paused to drive in his final point. "We found some frozen to death." But the postmaster had a problem. No one else wanted the job. He had little choice but to hire the grinning Thompson.
The new mail carrier was quickly nicknamed Snowshoe. He reckoned he had to cover 25 to 40 miles a day to keep his delivery on schedule.
This meant skiing through any weather and all conditions, day and night, when the bitter cold kept the snow firmer and easier to negotiate.
Because his mail sack was so burdensome, he traveled with only a few crackers, some bread and dried meat. For water, he ate snow and drank from icy streams. His timetable was so tight, he ate while skiing.
The only concession he made to the winter was a heavy Mackinaw.
Blankets and coats were simply too bulky. He depended, instead, on his exertion to keep him warm.
When exhaustion overcame him in the night, he would hastily pitch camp, using a pine stump for a stove. He would make a bed out of fir boughs, plant his feet toward the fire, prop his head against the mailbag and go to sleep with the stars overhead and the lullaby of the wind in the trees.
How did Snowshoe find his way across a constantly changing, snowy landscape? That's something of a minor miracle. Landmarks were often obliterated by the heavy winter weather, and he carried no maps or compass. Nevertheless, at the end of his long career, Thompson claimed, "I wass never lost. I can't be lost."
He was known as "Snowshoe Thompson," though he used only a pair of homemade skis.
His American name was John A. Thompson, and he came to the United States from Norway in 1827 as Jon Torstein Rui. As an adult he was the picture of a Norse Viking: 6 feet tall with a heavy, muscular build, blue eyes, and with blond hair and beard.
In 1851 Thompson migrated to California and settled in Hangtown (Placerville), mining in Coon Hollow and at Kelsey's Diggings. As a miner he was unsuccessful, so he took up
farming on a ranch on Putah Creek in the Sacramento Valley. His real vocation, however, seemed to be to carry the mail.
Thompson got the idea for mail delivery in 1855 from a notice in the Sacramento Union that a mail carrier was needed to pick up and deliver at Placerville and Genoa (Mormon Station)
during the winter months. Genoa was in Nevada about 90 miles east of Placerville. The carrier would be required to cross the Sierra Nevada mountains in winter. The stage road between the two towns had not yet been built, and the path of the wagon road across Johnson's Cutoff was annually obliterated by the winter snow. Delivery would be on foot and navigation by instinct.
Not surprisingly, no one applied for the job at first. The original contract had been let to Maj. George Chopenning in 1851, but he had given up the route as too difficult and unprofitable. It had taken him five weeks to run the mail over Johnson's Cutoff to Salt Lake City -- in June and July -- and it had taken him 16 days to get across the mountains.
Nevertheless, Thompson was interested. With skis, the route in winter would be far less daunting.
As a boy in Norway, Thompson had been virtually raised on skis, and he had adjusted to the polar climate. As there were no skis in California at the time, Thompson made his own from two 10-foot valley oak staves cut 4 inches wide with bootstraps in the center. He called them "snow shoes." He also cut a 10-foot pole to use for balance, direction, and braking.
After practicing on the hills outside of Placerville and putting on an awesome exhibition of winter skiing for the townsfolk, Thompson got the job as winter mail carrier. In January 1856 Snowshoe Thompson set off on his first winter mail run across the Sierra Nevada.
Thompson would generally follow the route laid out by Col. John C. "Cockeye" Johnson -- when he could find it. He would travel up the canyon of the South Fork to its head, traverse Johnson's Pass across the Sierra peaks, and ski down into the Tahoe Lake Basin. He would ford the Upper Truckee River, cross Luther Pass, traverse Hope Valley and plow through the West Carson River canyon to Genoa.
Thompson carried a mail sack on his back that weighed between 60 and 80 pounds. He carried no weapon because it would add to the weight he had to carry. He wore a jacket for warmth, and the little food he would eat on the run was crammed into the jacket's pockets.
He had neither map nor compass, and he carried no blanket. He would sleep in caves or tree-root caverns on pine-needle beds and build a fire for his feet. If a deserted cabin was found along the way he would use it. He expected to be confronted by bears and menaced by wolves. He would encounter snow drifts of 30 to 50 feet, and if there was a blizzard, he could be blinded by the snow. Trees and cliffs posed particular dangers for travelers on skis.
Placerville gamblers gave odds that Thompson would not make it back alive, but five days after he left he returned from Genoa carrying the mail from "the states." It was an awesome accomplishment, and "Snowshoe" would do it again and again during the winter months.
Snowshoe also made private deliveries. He worked for little, and sometimes nothing at all.
His handshake was a contract. Even after the Placerville-Genoa road was open for all-year traffic, Thompson carried the mail when the road was blocked by snow drifts.
During the summers, Thompson drove stages and delivered mail and supplies to remote mining camps. He also worked as a millwright. In 1869 the completion of the transcontinental railroad put him out of the mail delivery business, but he continued to carry packages and express for private parties.
Thompson's arduous life took its toll. He died in 1876 of liver disease. Two years before he had traveled to Washington, D.C., to petition Congress for a pension of $6,000 to compensate for all the unpaid services he had delivered for the government's benefit.
Representatives listened graciously to his lobbying and made promises. It is not clear that the promises were kept, however, although local historian Paolo Sioli wrote that a pension to Thompson was awarded by Congress at the 1872-1873 congressional session.
Snowshoe Thompson was buried in Genoa where a pioneer museum is kept for him and Hank Monk. In his biography of Thompson, Dan de Quills wrote: "He was the father of all the race of snow-shoers in the Sierra Nevada Mountains; and in those mountains he was the pioneer of the pack train, the stage coach, and the locomotive. On the Pacific Coast his equal in his peculiar line will probably never be seen again -- it would be hard to find another man combining his courage, physique and powers of endurance -- a man with such thaws and sinews, controlled by such a will."
Copyrighted by the Mountain Democrat, 2002. Reprinted by permission.
Of all the people that have lived in our mountains, the one person that truly became a legend during his lifetime was a man who only lived to be 49, but a man that was adventurous, fearless and the best mountaineer to ever ski through the Tahoe Basin.
His name was John A. Thompson. It was during the winter of 1856, when he was 29-years old, when Thompson heard that the mail wasn't getting through the Sierras during the winter because of the snowstorms, and he recalled that during his childhood days in Norway, they used these long, heavy skis, they called "snowshoes," to get around the mountains.
So he fashioned a pair out of green oak, and although they were over 10 feet long, and weighed about twenty-five pounds, he knew they'd get him over the snow. So he declared himself ready to carry the mail across the mountains, and headed off from Placerville to Carson Valley and back again the rest of that winter ... and for the next 20 winters. Through blizzards, frigid winds, and through whiteout conditions, Thompson carried the mail.
The weight of the bags usually ranged between sixty to eighty pounds, but one winter his load often averaged over 100 pounds. He never carried blankets, nor did he even wear an overcoat, depending on exercise to keep him warm. For water, he grabbed a handful of snow, and his food consisted of only some dried sausage, and a few crackers or biscuits.
By the day, he was guided by the trees and the rocks, for Thompson was a student of the mountains. He had a sixth sense about where he was, and never got lost, never. During the night, he looked up to the stars, like a mariner and sailed through the Sierras, sliding over the drifts with his long wood snowshoes, and pushing himself along with a single wood pole.
Once near Hope Valley, he ran into a pack of six hungry wolves who were ripping at the carcass of some animal. They started after him, but when he simply stared them down and kept on skiing, they stopped cold in their tracks and let him go his way.
On another day, Thompson ran into fresh tracks of grizzly bears, but he was never harmed in twenty years.
But although Thompson braved the meanest winters Tahoe ever saw, and faced down occasional wolves never missing a trip, he couldn't overcome the inertia of government, when he sought to obtain a small pension for his 20-years of services, services that he had provided for free to the residents of Tahoe and Carson Valley, the sum of $6000. Although everyone seemed to support his request, he never received one red cent.
John A. Thompson died of a liver ailment in Genoa
in 1876, he was loved and respected by every
resident in the Sierras, and would be known
forever as "Snowshoe Thompson," a Sierra
Reprinted, with permission, from the website of