There are legends, and then there is John “Snowshoe” Thompson, who delivered mail in the rugged and snow-covered Sierra-Nevada Mountains in the dead of winter for 20 grueling years.
Looking back on Snowshoe Thompson’s amazing devotion to the backwoods, it’s hard to imaging anyone still covering 90 miles through blizzards with 80 mile-per-hour winds and snowdrifts up to 50 feet high. Yet, from 1856 to 1876, Snowshoe Thompson made this amazing trek between two and four times per month – every month during the winter.
Born in the town of Tinn in Telemark County Norway, Jon Torsteinson-Rue would later change his name to John A. Thompson. At the age of 10, he came to America with his family, settling on a farm in Illinois. They moved to several mid-western states over the next few years. Then, in the late 1840s, gold fever struck out west. In 1851, at the age of 24, Thompson drove a herd of dairy cows to California, settling in Placerville. He eventually bought a small farm at Putah Creek in the Sacramento Valley.
It was four years later, in 1855 when Thompson saw an advertisement in the Sacramento Union newspaper that caught his eye: “People Lost to the World; Uncle Sam Needs a Mail Carrier.” Thompson would become the only winter mail link across the Sierra for the next two decades, until rail lines were eventually laid through the peaks.
“Snowshoe Thompson passed us daily, carrying the mail between Meadow Lake City and Cisco,” wrote Clarence Wooster in the California Historical Society Quarterly in 1939. “We would watch him sail down this four-mile course at great speed, cross the ice-frozen river, throw our mail toward the house and glide out of sight, up and over a hill.”
Judging by this description, Thompson was obviously not wearing the snowshoes that we know today. While growing up in Norway, ski-shaped snowshoes called ski-skates were as common as ordinary shoes. However, Thompson’s handmade oak skis weighed 25 pounds and were 10 feet long. Some people back then called his skis Norwegian snowshoes, hence the nickname Snowshoe.
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