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Snowshoe Thompson

12/31/2008 04:00PM, Published by Super Admin, Categories: In Print




If you go to the El Dorado County Historical Museum, you’ll find many relics from the past on display. Notably a good number of these relics hail from the 19th century, including various implements and tools from that bygone pioneer and prospector era. Moving into the back of the museum, you’ll find, next to a full-size horse-drawn buggy display, something interesting. Mounted upon the wall are two massive planks of wood, and after staring at them for a second you’ll realize that you are, in fact, looking at a pair of what appear to be very old skis. These skis belonged to a man who is considered to be the “Father of California skiing,” John A. Thompson, or as he is better known, “Snowshoe” Thompson.

Snowshoe Thompson was a legend in his time, from 1856 to 1876 he was California’s only link between every state East of the Sierra Nevada. For those 20 years, Thompson made mail runs between Placerville and what is now Genoa, Nevada. During the winter months, postmen found it next to impossible to cross the Sierras. Their simple snowshoes were inadequate when faced with traversing the steep and dangerous mountain passes. After reading an ad in the local paper that called for a mail carrier to cross the Sierra Nevada, Thompson answered that call. Originally from Norway, Thompson fashioned 10-foot-long ski-shaped snowshoes out of oak, and utilized a sturdy pole held in both hands for balance. In January of 1856, Thompson set out from Placerville to make his first run. As he left, a voice in the crowd cried out, “Good luck Snowshoe Thompson,” and so, the name stuck with him.

Thompson accomplished what was then thought to be impossible. He made it through the wintry mountains to Genoa in three days, while the return trip to Placerville took him roughly two days. After that rousing success, Thompson not only delivered the mail, but he also delivered much needed supplies to those who lived up in the Sierra Nevadas, who without his constant diligence (as well as astonishing physical endurance) would be otherwise disconnected from the outside world. One of his most well-known feats involved saving the life of a prospector who was stranded in an abandoned shack with severe frostbite. Thompson traveled to Genoa, then to Placerville and to Sacramento for chloroform and then back to the prospector to perform a foot amputation. The trip was roughly 400 miles total, and Thompson traveled it all in the span of ten days. Thompson also became a part of history, when in 1859, he delivered to Sacramento a rock that was rich in silver, straight from the Comstock Lode, which brought about the end of the California Gold Rush and a new rush to Nevada.

Though Thompson served unwaveringly for 20 years as the connection between California and the rest of the states, the Federal Government never paid him once for his services. Nearing the end of his life, he petitioned the government for 6,000 dollars, a paltry sum for recompense, but he was never paid. Looking at those massive planks of wood in the Museum, and at his statue in Genoa, Nevada, one can presume that “Snowshoe” Thompson received a payment richer than money. One hundred fifty-three years after he started out on that cold January day in 1856, he is still a California legend.

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