When I lived in South Florida I used to tell visitors stories about the heroic Barefoot Mailman. Today I met his match in Genoa, NV. A mailman on snowshoes! The legendary skiing mailman of the Sierra Nevada, John “Snowshoe” Thompson. When it came to traveling in the wintry mountains, he was the precursor of the pack train, the stagecoach and 18 years before the railroad.
After the Gold Rush there was a demand for mail between California and the eastern United States. The result was a lucrative, but dangerous mail contract worth $14,000 a year when two men took on the job in 1851. It took them 16 days to pack the mail by mule 910 miles from Sacramento to Salt Lake City. In order to cross the Sierra wooden mauls were needed to beat down the snow to create a trail for the pack animals. It was exhausting work and became deadly when Indians killed Woodward in November 1851.
During December 1851 and January 1852 brutal blizzards and deep snow in the Sierra turned him back. By February, the mail was rerouted, but the detour increased the harrowing journey to 60 days, which proved too much for man and beast. The communities in western Utah Territory (present-day Nevada) were then effectively cut-off from any communication and supplies during the winter months.
Newspapers published accounts of the dangerous and failed attempts to carry the mail over the mountains during the winter, but it seemed there was nothing anyone could do. In 1855 Thompson saw an ad published in the Sacramento Union: Uncle Sam Needs Carrier. The Placerville postmaster needed someone to carry the overland mail 90 miles east, up and over the Sierra range to the Carson Valley, in the dead of winter. There weren’t any takers until Thompson, whose father had made him “snow-shoes” to ski to school as a child in Norway, decided to answer the call to duty.
Thompson answered the ad and offered to haul the mail over the rugged High Sierra. No one in the region had seen skis before Thompson showed them his homemade long boards and single brake pole. On his first attempt from the snowline above Placerville over to Carson Valley, his rucksack was packed with letters and packages. The hefty load weighed between 60 and 80 pounds. Initially Thompson’s friends and neighbors feared that he wouldn’t survive, but the skiing mailman conquered the hazardous journey in just three days. The return trip up and over the Sierra’s eastern escarpment took only 48 hours.
At least twice a month for 20 years, Snowshoe Thompson hauled his heavy rucksack through the mountains. Fair skies or storm, rain or snow, Snowshoe Thompson always delivered. For personal protection, he carried only matches, some beef jerky, crackers and biscuits — no blanket, no gun, no camping gear or compass. He wore a simple Mackinaw jacket, a wide brimmed hat, and smudged his cheekbones with charcoal to prevent snow blindness. Thompson rarely stopped to rest and sometimes built a fire for heat, but when a blizzard made that impossible, he danced a jig on a flat rock to stay warm. Thompson preferred to ski at dawn and dusk when the snow was hard, crusted and very fast. He navigated in the dark using the stars as a compass and he judged his progress and elevation by observing rock formations along the route.
Snowshoe Thompson died on May 15, 1876, at age 49, from appendicitis and is buried in the historic Genoa cemetery. Three months before his death a journalist interviewed Snowshoe. He asked Thompson whether he had ever lost his way in the mountains. “No,” Snowshoe quietly replied, “I was never lost. There is no danger of getting lost in a narrow range of mountains like the Sierra, if a man has his wits about him.” Wow!