It Caught My Eye: All Aboard The Snowshoe Express

boulder1.jpgOn the heels of last week’s discovered tribute to the remarkable Jedediah Strong Smith, this next post now runs the risk of this becoming a “Next In A Series Of Big Ass Boulders Memorializing People We Never Heard Of (But Should’ve),” but what the heck: I present to you the stony tribute I found this morning to one “Snowshoe” Thompson (click thumbnail to biggify).

Situated in a pocket park on Commodore Sloat Drive (Gmap’s pinpoint), several blocks south and around the corner from Jed’s memorial on the Crescent Heights median at Wilshire Boulevard sits not quite as massive a rock honoring another figure in California history — as legendary and saintly then as he is little known today.

The 1926 plaque (clickable close-up image of it after the jump) reads: “A pioneer hero of the Sierras who for twenty winters carried the mail over the mountains to isolated camps rescuing the lost and giving succor to those in need along the way. Born 1827. Died 1876.”

But of course with Google as my guide I found sooo much more (on the other side of the jump).


  • Thompson left his native Norway in 1837 when he was 10 years old. He arrived in California in 1851 with high hopes of finding his fortune in gold. Instead of mining or panning, Thompson ended up ranching or cutting wood to make ends met until 1856 when he answered an ad in a Sacramento newspaper that read: “People lost to the world — Uncle Sam needs carrier” for a postal route established by Congress between Placerville, Calif. and what was to become Genoa, Nevada. No one else wanted the hazardous job but Thompson.
  • Despite his nickname, he did not make use of snowshoes to carry the mail, but rather gave them up to travel with with 10-foot-long skis weighing 25 pounds each, and a single sturdy pole generally held in both hands at once. He knew this version of cross-country skiing from his native Norway, and employed it during the winter, as one of the earlier introducers of the skill to the United States.
  • His pack, weighing from 60 to 80 pounds, included mail, newspapers, periodicals, ore samples, and medicines. He could run the 90-mile Placerville to Carson Valley leg in three days and reverse journey in two days.
  • At least twice a month for 20 years, Snowshoe Thompson hauled his heavy rucksack through the mountains whether under fair skies or storm, rain or snow. 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.
  • Thompson never signed an official contract with the U.S. Postal Service and was never paid for the mail he delivered. In 1872 Thompson traveled to Washington, DC, to lobby for what he felt was his deserved compensation: $6,000. Thompson waited six weeks for the ongressional Committee to decide on his request, but he ran out of money and had to return home before they did. He blamed no one but himself for not getting paid.
  • Snowshoe Thompson died of appendicitis which developed into pneumonia on May 15, 1876. he is buried in Genoa, Nevada. That city’s postmaster, S.A.Kinsey, said: “Most remarkable man I ever knew, that ‘Snowshoe’ Thompson. He must be made of iron. Besides, he never thinks of himself, but he’d give his last breath for anyone else — even a total stranger.” The few times Thompson had thought of putting an end to his legendary Snowshoe Express, he continued just for the look on the faces of the people living in isolation. Hundreds of thousands from all parts of the globe emigrated to California in search of gold, but few left such a heartfelt mark on the Golden State’s history as John A. “Snowshoe” Thompson.
  • A statue of Thompson, stands in the grounds of the Mormon Station State Park in Genoa, Nevada. Dedicated on June 23, 2001, it was was made possible with funds raised by the Snowshoe Thompson Committee of the Greater Genoa Business Association. In 2003, a new nonprofit organization was formed called “Friends of Snowshoe Thompson.”
  • The 181st anniversary of John “Snowshoe” Thompson’s birth is next Wednesday, April 30.


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