We’ve all heard of the Overland Express, and of course the Pony Express. But how much do you know about the “Snowshoe Express” ?
Back in 1856, an unusual plea was printed in a Sacramento newspaper:
People Lost to The World,
Uncle Sam Needs a Mail Carrier . . .
read the two-line appeal. The unusual story which began with those brief words has been all but forgotten among those tales of daring-do which spice the history of our Mail Service.
Scattered along the ridges of the High Sierras between Nevada and California were dozens of mining camps and the isolated communities which grew up around them. For much of the year, winter storms and twenty-five foot snow drifts effectively cut the inhabitants of these camps and villages off from the rest of the world. From the first snowfall to Spring thaw, there were no lines of communication and the remote gold-seekers were strictly on their own.
A Norwegian-born Californian named John Thompson, himself a prospector-turned-farmer, read the newspaper advertisement and, after some trial experiments, presented himself to the U.S. Postmaster in Placerville with a plan. Equipped with a set of what he called “Norwegian Snowshoes” - long wooden skis- constructed from childhood memories, ten feet long and weighing a good 25 pounds, Thompson proposed to carry the mail. Real snowshoes were known as "webs" or Canadian snowshoes while the long skis Thompson used were often called "Norwegian skates". The post office quickly signed him on.
For the next 13 years, “Snowshoe Thompson” became the winter angel for hundreds of isolated families, carrying 80-pound sacks of mail over uncharted miles of the most perilous alpine country in North America, with 1 or 2 blankets and only such dried foods as he could fit into his pockets. In time the people along his bi-weekly route came to depend upon him, not only for mail, but for medicines and emergency supplies. John Thompson was much more than a carrier of mail and supplies. He was a powerful man of exceeding generosity and a deep sense of devotion to the people he served.
In December of 1856 he found a miner named James Sisson lying on the floor of a cabin in obvious distress with both legs frozen and gangrenous. Thanks to Thompson's efforts and rapid back-country travel the man was transported to the care of a medical Doctor who upon examination refused to perform the needed amputation without anesthetic. To provide the needed pain-killer Thompson skied another 90 miles to Placerville, then another 50 to Sacramento and finally the same distance in return. Sisson survived the ordeal and eventually moved back east.
Sadly, the postmaster in Placerville never came through with any of the promised pay for Thompson’s unique service and it fell to the families he served to compensate him as they were able. Finally, with the completion of the Central Pacific Railroad in 1869, the need for Thompson’s “Snowshoe Express” ended. His grateful clients petitioned Congress to grant a pension to their devoted carrier, but it never happened. His tireless energy finally gave out, and he died at the age of 49 unable to complete the spring planting of a grain crop on his farm.
As a collector of philatelic cancellations, I would give almost anything to run across one of those envelopes once carried by the skiing mailman of the high Sierras bearing his own handmade postmark: “SNOWSHOE EXPRESS - 1857”.
There remains one last postscript to the story of John Thompson. The unusual service he rendered may have been forgotten, but the long wooden “snowshoes” he used left their mark. The sport of cross-country skiing in the U.S. West owes its origins to his example.