Snow-Shoe Thompson

In the mid-1850s, the search was on in earnest for a better wagon road over the Sierra Nevada. Rough roads were built, and used, but all wheeled travel was necessarily suspended during the snow-packed winter months. However, except in the worst weather the mail did go through, by pack mule and horse—and the spectacular efforts of a lone man on skis. His name was John A. Thompson, aka “Snow-shoe Thompson,” and in January 1856 this blond-bearded, 6’1” robust sportsman began a remarkable series of trips across the Sierra, which he continued for 20 years. John was born in Prestijeld, Norway, in 1827, emigrating to the U.S. with his family when he was ten.  They settled in Illinois, but in 1851 John succumbed to the lure of gold and came to California, where he mined at Coon Hollow and Kelsey’s Diggings near Placerville.  He did not strike it rich, so moved to Putah Creek and tried ranching.  There, he heard of the troubles experienced in getting the mails across the snowy summits of the High Sierra. One day while splitting the trunk of an oak tree at his ranch, he thought of the snow-shoes he had seen, as a boy, in his native country. What he fashioned were rather heavy and clumsy: ten feet long, four inches wide, and weighing 25 pounds. Returning to Placerville, he spent some days practicing on his new snow-shoes—which looked much like a pair of light sled-runners—soon dashing down the hillsides at a fearful rate of speed. On his first trip from Placerville to Carson Valley, a distance of 90 miles with mail bags weighing 60-80 pounds  strapped to his back, John glided over fields of snow from 30 to 50 feet deep, his long Norwegian snow-shoes bearing him safely and swiftly over the surface of the snow. Having successfully made the round trip, he continued to carry the mail between those two points all winter.  He carried no blankets, nor did he wear a heavy overcoat, relying on his exertions to keep him warm. His night camps, where he built fires, were generally made wherever he found himself when darkness descended. Usually, he spent three days going from Placerville to Carson Valley, and two days coming back. His sightings of grizzly bears, adventures with wolves, and the lost humans he rescued are told in many tales.  Thompson himself was never lost, nor did he suffer a mishap, even in the most violent blizzards. He died May 15, 1876, in the Carson Valley. His Norwegian surname name was actually spelled Thomson (without the p), as it appears on his tombstone in Genoa, Nevada, beneath a carved pair of crossed skis.

 

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