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Stories from the valley

Sierra History from Afar: The Legend of Snowshoe Thompson

Contributed by Carl Gwyn

After the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, many will take a trip to or pass through old town Placerville. For those who enter Main Street from the west, a mural on the side of the old post office building will be the first thing the visitors see. In the mural is a tall man on skis with the caption “Snowshoe Thompson, 1827-1876.”

Why is a man named “Snowshoe” on skis? Answering this question leads to a local history lesson about a hero who exemplified courage, ability, civic duty, and kindness. While you can’t follow his track now, in the future doing so would make for a nice road trip through history.

John Thompson (born Jon Torsteinsson Rue) arrived in California in 1851 and settled in Placerville. After a short time looking for gold, the young Norwegian turned to farming and settled along Putah Creek in the Sacramento Valley. 

Being a concerned citizen, Thompson responded to an advertisement in the Sacramento Union for someone to carry the mail over the Sierra in winter. After the first snowfall of the season, almost all communications were cut off between Sacramento and Salt Lake City. Thompson fashioned a pair of 10-foot-long oaken snowshoes (the word “ski” was not in use at the time; he called them snowskates), applied for the job, and was gratefully accepted, as others had failed to be able to accomplish the task.

This started a 20-year career of carrying 100-pound packs of mail over the mountains in all kinds of conditions, never even carrying a sleeping bag. Snowshoe Thompson was known for skiing down mountains at breakneck speeds, covering the distance from Placerville to Genoa, Nevada in 2-3 days. His kindness led him to serving more communities throughout the Sierra so people could maintain contact with their loved ones in the east. Sadly, he was never paid by the U.S. Government for his service, but he did receive small payments from those for whom he carried the mail.

Thompson’s major route started at the old Placerville Post Office at the corner of Main and Sacramento Streets, went along the Mormon Emigrant Trail, and up over Carson Pass, where an impressive obelisk in honor of his service can be found in the summit parking lot. Thompson then continued to Genoa, where his gravesite is located. 

In the old Genoa Courthouse Museum there’s an excellent exhibit on Snowshoe. He was a statesman, instrumental in the discovery of the Comstock Lode in Virginia City, and is the father of skiing in the west.

For a short history of this inspiring pioneer, I would encourage you to visit Travel Nevada to learn more about this incredible historic figure who did much more than carry the mail.