The Legend of Snowshoe Thompson: The Founder of California Skiing

In the 1800’s, traveling across the Sierra Nevada in the middle of winter was rarely accomplished. Native Americans were usually the only people brave enough to make the 3-day hike across the snowy mountains using woven-style snowshoes. That is until a Norwegian man began making the journey to deliver mail using the 10-foot skis native of his home country.

As a matter of necessity and an act of decades of toughness and bravery, this man would forever change the landscape of the Sierra Nevada.

John Albert Thompson, also known as Snowshoe Thompson, never actually used snowshoes. As the Gold Rush was taking off in Northern California and correspondence between California and the Nevada boomtowns of Genoa and Virginia City had become essential, businessmen and prospectors were looking for a mailman who was willing to make the winter trek across the mountains. Enter Snowshoe Thompson.

Statue of Snowshoe Thompson at Boreal

In 1852, when California was just two years old, Thompson began working for Thomas Knott, who owned a store in Placerville. While working in the store, Knott offered Thompson $2 to take mail and messages to his sawmill in Genoa, 90 miles to the east over the snow-covered Sierra Nevada. Instead of using snowshoes, Thompson built 10-foot cross country skis that weighed 25 pounds to traverse the dangerous terrain. They were the first skis anyone had ever seen in the region and, just like that, skiing in Northern California was born.

Later in 1855, Thompson read an article in the Sacramento Union titled People Lost to the World: Uncle Sam Needs Carrier. Past mail carriers had difficulty traversing the snowy mountains and “Uncle Sam” was offering a lucrative contract of $14,000 a year for anyone to take the job. It took a specific specimen to be able to accomplish the task. At six feet, 185 pounds, the sturdy Thompson was able to carry the 100 pound load of mail and ore while simultaneously controlling his massive skis.

For the next 20 years, Snowshoe Thompson spent his life traversing the snowy Sierra Nevada delivering mail. In sunny skies or whiteout blizzard, he always delivered. He cross-country skied using his Norwegian skis and a single sturdy pole held with both hands at once. He traveled the “Johnson’s Cutoff” route, which would roughly equate to Highway 50 from Placerville to South Lake Tahoe today, and claimed he never got lost, even in a blizzard. He had quickly memorized the route and would use stars and rock formations to continue his journey in the dark of night.

“I was never lost,” Thompson told Territorial Enterprise journalist Dan De Quille. “There is no danger of getting lost in a narrow range of mountains like the Sierra, if a man has his wits about him.”

Thompson traversed through the mountains wearing a simple Mackinaw jacket and a wide brimmed hat. He carried just matches, some beef jerky, crackers and biscuits, and never had a blanket, gun or compass. By smearing charcoal on his face, he was able to avoid snow blindness.

His ability to ride his homemade skis are something of legend. He flew down mountain slopes at speeds up to 60 mph, inspiring famed Comstock journalist Dan De Quille, who watched Thompson in action, to write:

“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.”

Portrait of an older Snowshoe Thompson

During the silver boom in Virginia City, which at the time was the wealthiest town in the country, Thompson would transport ore across the mountains for investors in California. In the wintertime, he became famous as the man that connected the people across the mighty Sierra Nevada.

With his many years spent in the snowy wilderness, Thompson rarely ran into trouble. He never encountered one of the thousands of Grizzly Bears that lived in the area at the time, most likely due to hibernation.

“I was never frightened but once during all my travels in the mountains. That was in the winter of 1857,” said Thompson. “I was crossing Hope Valley [south of Lake Tahoe], when I came to a place where six great wolves – big timber wolves – were at work in the snow, digging out the carcass of some animal. They were great, gaunt, shaggy fellows.”

Thompson said the wolves howled at him but ultimately left him alone. He cites his timing and their current meal as his saving grace in the incident.

Snowshoe was also known for his heroism in the face of deadly blizzard conditions. During his 20 years in the Sierra Nevada, he had saved many people from certain death.

It was in late December of 1856 that Thompson found prospector James Sisson buried in deep snow for 12 days in a cabin south of Lake Tahoe without fire and surviving only on raw flour. When Snowshoe discovered Sisson, he had significant frostbite in both his legs. Upon discovery, Thompson traveled to Genoa and returned with six men to amputate his legs and save his life. When they found out they needed chloroform to successfully complete the amputation, Thompson hopped back on his skis and travelled to Sacramento to complete to heroic 2-day mission.

Today, the Sierra Nevada in the Tahoe area is jam packed full of skis, a tribute to the lasting legacy of one man. Snowshoe Thompson was not only one of bravest men in Northern California in the 19th century, he also brought sweeping changes to travel in the Sierra Nevada. Today, statues of the man on skis are predominant around the Tahoe region, showing a time of transition in the region, with Snowshoe Thompson as the leading figure in the revolution.

In the early history of European settlement in the Sierra Nevada, there were’t many men with as much influence as a the great Norwegian immigrant, John Albert Thompson. A true Northern California legend.

Active NorCal

Telling the Stories of Northern California


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