Celebrating Snowshoe Thompson
Every time the Sierra Nevada range is covered with inviting slopes of groomed, packed snow, skiers should fall to their knees and give thanks to Jon Torsteinson Rui.
Rui — who is better known as John “Snowshoe” Thompson — introduced skiing to Northern California and Nevada. Prior to his arrival in the region in the mid-1850s, no one had ever strapped on a pair of thin, wooden boards and slid down a hill.
Thompson was born in Norway in 1827. His family immigrated to America when he was 10 years old and settled in the Midwest. In 1851, however, John joined the thousands of people heading to California to mine for gold.
After several fruitless years of mining in the Sierra, he settled in the Sacramento area and began to farm. He heard about a lucrative postal service contract to carry mail from Placerville, Calif., to Genoa, a tiny hamlet in what was then the Utah Territory.
He also had a plan for how to carry the mail — he would create a pair of long, wooden skiis, which were called snowshoes in his day, like those he’d used as a child while living in Norway. He applied for the job using the name, John A. Thompson, because he felt his real name was unpronounceable to most non-Norwegians.
Worried he wouldn’t be hired unless he proved himself eager for the work, he showed up carrying his pair of handmade, 25-pound oak skiis, which were ten feet long and an inch-and-a-half thick. History doesn’t tell us if he impressed the postmaster, but he got the job, mostly because he was the only applicant.
Thompson made his first trip (it was 90 miles each way) over the mountains on January 3, 1856. He took three days to reach Placerville and made the return trip in an amazing 48 hours. Word of his accomplishment traveled fast and within a short time, Thompson became a Nevada legend.
Most incredible was the fact that Thompson often carried a pack loaded with 80 to 100 pounds of mail and assorted packages (he even carried, over several trips, much of the machinery and printing equipment used to produce Virginia City’s famous Territorial Enterprise newspaper).
According to Lake Tahoe weather historian Mark McLaughlin, one of Nevada’s most important mining discoveries owes much to Thompson. In June of 1859, Thompson was given an ore sample by two miners, Peter O’Riley and Pat McLaughlin, who wanted it assayed in Placerville.
Thompson carried the bluish rock to Professor W. Frank Stewart, a Placerville geologist, who analyzed it and declared that it contained some of the richest silver content he’d ever seen. Stewart asked Thompson to take the sample to Sacramento for additional analysis.
The second assay supported Stewart’s conclusions. The two miners had discovered the fabulous Comstock Lode in Virginia City.
For nearly two decades, Thompson delivered the mail in small towns throughout the Sierra and gave new meaning to that cliche about mailmen making their rounds regardless of rain or sleet or snow.
Interestingly, Thompson was rarely paid for his services. In 1874, he petitioned the U.S. Congress for back pay but was turned down—despite traveling all the way to Washington D.C. to make his appeal.
Over the years, Thompson spread the word about his “Norwegian snowshoes.” He taught dozens of people how to glide across the snow and almost singlehandedly introduced skiing to the region.
Thompson died in 1876 and is buried in the quiet Genoa cemetery, which is located 15 miles southwest of Carson City via U.S. 395 and Jack’s Valley Road. The gravesite is located at the rear of the cemetery, under large shade trees.
Today, visitors can pay their respects to the father of Sierra Nevada skiing and view his unique tombstone, featuring the image of a pair of wooden skies carved into the white marble.
Additionally, two bronze plaque — one placed during the 1960 Olympics at Lake Tahoe by the Norwegian National Ski Team — commemorate his importance to the sport of skiing and the development of the west.
Rich Moreno covers the places and people that make Nevada special.