Celebrating Snowshoe Thompson
March 4, 2016
He stood 6-feet 2-inches tall, and was nothing but muscle. Born in Norway, it was likely he could ski before he could walk. The legendary Snowshoe Thompson never got frostbite, and never complained about the cold. Author and Lecturer Frank Tortorich reports that he was a magnificent man in his new book, "John A. Snowshoe Thompson: Pioneer Mail Carrier of the Sierra."
Taking only five days for the round-trip, Snowshoe Thompson started in Placerville, skied over Luther Pass in heavy winter snow, picked up mail in Genoa, and arrived back with no difficulty at all. This is the feat that would make Snowshoe Thompson a figure of mythical proportions. He had handcrafted wooden skis, small provisions and a strength and determination that few could match. He completed this act of physical and mental prowess on a regular basis for over 20 years.
Born Jon Anon Torsteinsson Rue in 1827, he moved with his mother and siblings to Illinois when he was just 10 years old. In the 1840s he Americanized his name, and in 1851 he and his brother took a herd of milk cows on a cross-country trek that ended in Placerville. Thompson did mining in Kelsey, and it was here that he met millwright Thomas Knott. Working with Knott, he moved to Woodfords and built a water-powered sawmill. They eventually sold to John Carey (namesake of Carey's Peak).
When Thompson found a want ad for a mail carrier in the February 1856 Sacramento Union newspaper, he saw a way to be of service. He could deliver letters with important information quickly. The postal service did not think anyone would apply. After all, who would be able to carry mail between Placerville and Genoa, in the deep of winter in blizzard conditions over the treacherous mountain passes? We all know the answer to this question now, but it is hard to imagine that anyone else would have been up to the challenge.
Thompson was very civic-minded and served on the Alpine County Board of Supervisors between 1868 and 1872. Versatile in every way, he was a Notary Public and ran for Assessor, loosing to Merrill in 1867. He mined in Silver Mountain City, which was then the county seat.
He married Agnes Singleton and they settled into their home in Diamond Valley, a beautiful spot nestled into a knoll in Woodfords. It was here that he farmed and raised cattle. They had one son, Arthur. Thompson also continued to mine in Silver Mountain City, which is now a ghost town with little remaining on Ebbett's Pass. It was located well past Markleeville. Agnes wanted to go with him, and brought Arthur. Snowshoe left to do a mail run, and upon his return found that his son was quite ill. He made a sling to carry his wife Agnes on his back, and then carried his baby boy cradled in his arms down the steep mountain pass on his skis. After making it to the doctor, his son was treated and survived. This is a remarkable feat, and reflects the dedication and strength that Snowshoe maintained throughout his life.
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After 13 years carrying the mail, he still had not been paid, and Congress was petitioned to right this. Unfortunately, he never got compensation from the government. The only money he ever received was from people who gave him packages or letters to deliver, or supplies to pick up and return to them. Snowshoe provided this service whether he was paid or not.
The land where Snowshoe lived now has three monuments honoring him along the road. Thompson reported that he could see his gold mine from his bedroom there. He died at only 49 years of age on May 15, 1876, succumbing to what might have been a burst appendix. He was buried in the Genoa Cemetery. A statue honoring him now stands at Mormon Station State Park.
Tortorich has written the definitive volume on Snowshoe Thompson, giving the reader all the details of his inspiring life. It is available at the Alpine County, Douglas County, and Genoa Museums, and also online through Amazon. It took Tortorich over 10 years to write the book, tracking down elusive primary source materials. This writing, local skiing and snowshoeing events, as well as many plaques and statues honor snowshoe's memory here in the United States and in Norway. The Alpine County Board of Supervisors has even declared February "Snowshoe Thompson Month."
The 17th annual Snowshoe Thompson Celebration is 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday in Hope Valley. It includes a cross-country ski and snowshoe tour along with lunch at Sorenson's Resort. Steve Hale will perform, there will be music by Richard Blair, and Tortorich will tell tales about Snowshoe's life. Call 530-573-8940 for information.