When I go skiing in the Sierra Nevada mountains, I often think of Snowshoe Thompson, one of Genoa’s greatest heroes and the most intriguing figures in Nevada’s history. Who would have thought that a young Norwegian boy would become a memorable name in the history of the US Postal Service?
Born Jon Torsteinson Rue in the Telemark district of Norway on April 30, 1827, “John” was only 10 years old when his father died and his family immigrated to America. In 1851, as the gold frenzy began luring people in California, the 24 years old Jon ran off to the Sierra foothills and began working as a miner. Later he moved to Placerville, about 30 miles east of Sacramento and took up farming. At about the same time he Americanized his name to John Thompson, after his stepfather’s family name.
With the Gold Rush, the demand for communication between California and the rest of the country increased considerably. At the time, the only passage to California was over the Sierra Nevada mountains, but the brutal blizzards and deep snow made it impossible to cross the mountains in winter. Remember, this was almost 20 years before the nation’s first transcontinental railroad. People were cut off from any communication and supplies, so the postal service began looking for a mail carrier who could travel between Placerville and Genoa during the winter months. Many attempts have been made to carry the mail over the mountains during winter, but almost all of them failed.
In 1855, Thompson saw an ad in the Sacramento Union: ‘People Lost to the World: Uncle Sam Needs Carrier’ and thought about applying for the job. He remembered that when he was a kid in Norway, his father made him a pair of “snowshoes” to go to school during the heavy winter months. But what Thompson was calling “snowshoes” were not even close to the wood-frame paddle shaped style of snowshoes common in the West. Thompson’s ‘snowshoes’ were two hand carved long wooden boards that, when attached to your feet, would help you side on the snow. They were the precursors of modern skis.
The technique of sliding down these wooden boards was something new to the West and only a few people from Scandinavia were acquainted with it. No one in the area had seen skis before when Thompson carved himself two ten-foot (over 3-meter) boards upturned in the front and began hauling the mail over the Sierra Nevada mountains. He was using a single sturdy pole, generally held in both hands at once or used for breaking.
Twice a month for 20 years, the Norwegian immigrant delivered mail between Placerville, CA and Genoa, NV, until his death in 1876. He was carrying an 80-100 pounds rucksack on his back, sometimes loaded with medicine, clothes, even pots and pans, or whatever people needed besides the letters. He managed to do the 90-miles trip over the Sierra Nevada mountains in the middle of winter – alone – in only 3 days. After delivering the mail, he would turn around and rush back home in only two. He carried no gun, no blanket, no camping gear, and no compass, but he did carry matches to start fires and his bible. He snacked on dried sausages, jerked beef, crackers, and biscuits. He was wearing only a simple jacket and a wide hat, but used to blacken his cheekbones with charcoal to prevent snow blindness. His ability on skis was legendary, so much so that the local newspapers began writing about him.
In spite of his great service to the community, ‘Snowshoe’ Thompson was never paid by the government for his services delivering the United States Mail. Although he tried to use his political connections and even made a trip to Washington D.C. , Thompson never received a dollar for all his 20 years work.
A statue of “Snowshoe’ Thompson on his skis stands on the grounds of the Mormon Station State Park in Genoa, Nevada. His forward stretched arms holding the pole captures the sense of speed this man must have had when traveling down the mountains. He does not look like a big man, but surely had a very big heart!
‘Snowshoe’ Thompson was only 49 when he died of complications derived from an appendicitis. He was buried in Genoa’s graveyard. His tomb is marked by a simple white stone that reads “Gone but not forgotten.”