Snowshoe Thompson: Lake Tahoes white gold |

Snowshoe Thompson: Lake Tahoes white gold

Mark McLaughlin

Of all the skiers who have carved the slopes around Lake Tahoe, the most famous is undoubtedly John Snowshoe Thompson, the legendary skiing mailman of the Sierra Nevada. When it came to traveling in the wintry mountains, he was the precursor of the pack train, the stagecoach and the locomotive. It required years before any other form of transportation succeeded him.Born Jon Tostensen in the Telemark district of Norway on April 30, 1827, John was 10 years old when his father died and the family immigrated to the American Midwest in 1837. In 1851, the 24-year-old was bit by gold fever and ran off to California. He worked as a miner in the Sierra foothills and then later moved to Putah Creek, near Placerville, about 30 miles east of Sacramento. Tostensen took up farming in summer and cutting commercial firewood in the winter. About this time, he Americanized his name to John Albert Thompson after the family name of his stepfather Arthur Thompson.

After the Gold Rush, the increasing demand for communication between California and the eastern United States resulted in the establishment of an overland mail route between San Francisco and Salt Lake City. The lucrative, but dangerous, mail contract was worth $14,000 a year when George Chorpenning and Absolom Woodward took on the job in 1851. It took the men 16 days to pack the mail by mule 910 miles to the Great Salt Lake. It was exhausting work and became deadly when Indians killed Woodward in November 1851. Newspapers published accounts of the dangerous difficulties 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: People Lost to the World: 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 werent 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 remembered that as a young boy in Norway he and his friends had used skis to travel quickly over the snow-covered landscape and his Viking spirit was aroused to the challenge. He stood six feet tall and weighed a solid 180 pounds. With his blonde hair and beard, fair skin and piercing blue eyes, he looked every bit the fierce Norseman of his ancestry. On his first attempt to ski from Placerville to the Carson Valley via the Markleeville route south of Lake Tahoe, his rucksack was packed with letters and packages. The hefty load weighed between 60 and 80 pounds. Initially Thompsons friends and neighbors feared he would never survive the trek, but the skiing mailman conquered the hazardous journey east in just three days. The return trip up and over the Sierras eastern escarpment took only 48 hours. Thompsons pack eventually exceeded 100 pounds when newspapers, medicine, and ore samples were stuffed into it. 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. Snowshoe Thompson died May 15, 1876, at age 49, from appendicitis. He is buried in the historic Genoa cemetery. Three months before his death, Territorial Enterprise journalist Dan De Quille interviewed the popular Norwegian. De Quille 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.

Snowshoe Thompson was the first skier at Lake Tahoe, but he certainly wasnt the last. Today, the Tahoe region enjoys an enviable reputation among Americas premier winter resorts for its sublime beauty, frequent sunshine and abundant snow. This well-deserved reputation got its start around 1928, when the 223-room Tahoe Tavern, a European-style luxury hotel near Tahoe City, began to stay open during the winter months. Transportation to the lake was provided by Southern Pacific Railroads Snowball Specials, which brought in tourists from the main line in Truckee. Initially, the main attractions were ice skating and tobogganing near todays Tahoe City Golf Course, but soon winter activities moved to a more protected location (current location of Granlibakken resort) just west of town. A double toboggan slide was built, and then shortly after a large ski jump was installed, designed by none other than Lars Haugen, a seven-time national ski jumping champion.

The ski jumping contests and toboggan runs were very popular and the area soon became known as Olympic Hill. During the winter of 1928, residents in Tahoe City formed a winter sports club. The clubs members were so confident of their perfect location and climate that they petitioned to host the 1932 Winter Olympics. Although the 32 Winter Games were awarded to Lake Placid, New York, Lake Tahoe scored a victory by being chosen to host the prestigious National Ski Tournament at Olympic Hill, the first one ever held west of the Rockies. Despite problems with financing and housing (a generous donation of several thousand dollars by Mrs. Laura Knight, owner of Vikingsholm at Emerald Bay, saved the tournament), the beautiful scenery, mild weather, and incredibly deep snow impressed the competitors, journalists and spectators that attended the nationally publicized contest. By the time the ski competitors arrived in February 1932, nearly 300 inches of snow had buried Tahoe City in drifts approaching 25 feet high. The winning combination of heavy snowfall and heavenly mountains convinced a skeptical media that California really did offer world-class skiing and scenery. A March 3, 1932, article published in the Auburn Journal described the excitement: The 28th National Ski Tournament goes down as one of the best exhibitions of good sportsmanship, one of the most thrilling meets, one of the most spectacular events ever held in the United States under the auspices of the National Ski Association. At the tournament, one young Reno competitor, Wayne Poulsen, placed third in the ski jumping event. His excellent performance launched Poulsen, the future founder and owner of Squaw Valley, into a lifetime involvement in skiing. As a direct result of the 1932 National Ski Tournament at Lake Tahoe, the popularity and economics of winter sports throughout the Sierra boomed.Mark McLaughlins column, Weather Window, appears every other week in the Sierra Sun. He is a nationally published writer and photographer whose award-winning books, The Donner Party: Weathering the Storm, Sierra Stories: True Tales of Tahoe, Vol. 1 & 2, and Western Train Adventures: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly are available at local stores. Mark, a Carnelian Bay resident, can be reached at

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