Before the “Pony Express” carried mail over the Sierra Nevadas, a young Norwegian from Telemark sailed on skis across 90 miles of stormy heights from Placerville, Calif., to Carson Valley, Nevada.
For 20 years, John A. Thompson, known as “Snowshoe” Thompson, carried the mail over the mountains to isolated camps, rescued lost people and helped those in need. He was a legend in his own times.
Born April 30, 1827, he immigrated to America with his mother when he was 10. After living in Illinois, Missouri and Iowa, he joined the argonauts (gold seekers) headed for California. Ever since leaving Norway he was lonesome for the mountains. Anyone who has been in Telemark knows how much the mountains are a part of the people’s lives.
Having moved to California, Thompson bought a ranch in the Sacramento Valley. He didn’t care for a miner’s life. His farm was believed to be the first one owned by a Norwegian in California.
He read about the difficulty of getting mail across the Sierras and volunteered for the job. Made from oak on his farm, his skis were more than 10 feet long and weighed 25 pounds. People laughed at them and said they wouldn’t work. Today they are in a Sacramento museum.
Thompson skied 45 miles a day over snowdrifts 50 feet deep with a load of 60 to 100 pounds on his back. Traveling light, he carried only some crackers and dried meats to eat. He did not use liquor, but scooped up snow to drink if no mountain stream was nearby. Wearing just a mackinaw, he had no blanket to keep warm. More than once Thompson jigged until morning to stay alive. He did not carry a weapon for protection against wolves and grizzlies. Once, eight wolves blocked his path. When he didn’t flinch, they let him pass. The stars and his wits were his compass.
Snow in the Sierras was deep, sometimes higher than the trees. Many mornings Snowshoe had to dig himself out of a snowbank to continue his journey. When traveling to Washington, D.C., in 1874, the train became stuck in the snow so four that locomotives could not pull it through. Thompson took his skis, and in two days he had traveled the 56 miles to Cheyenne, Wyo., beating the train.
What was his pay for those 20 years of work? Many promises, but the government’s response was, “We’re sorry, but …” Later investigation into the postmaster general’s records indicated that they had not even recorded his name, only his route and the dates.
For all his fame, he was a modest man, never boasting or resting on his laurels. He is regarded today as the most remarkable man to have ever buckled ski straps in America. One postmaster claimed he saw Thompson jump 180 feet without a break. When only 49, he died of a liver ailment on his California ranch. He is buried in Diamond Valley, 30 miles south of Carson City, beside his only son, who died at age 11.
Thompson is still remembered by family in America. Janet Erdman of Willow City, N.D., wrote to me that her grandfather, John Sanderson, was Snowshoes’ nephew. Like so many children of immigrants, they are proud of their Scandinavian heritage and glad to be Americans.
Next week: Rasmus B. Anderson and King Frederick’s pipe.
ARLAND FISKE, a retired Lutheran minister who lives in Moorhead, is the author of nine books on Scandinavian themes.