John A. (Snowshoe) Thomson was a red-bearded miracle to the 3,000 people snowbound in Meadow Lake (formerly called Summit City), California in the winter of 1866-67. Embraced by the Sierra, tunneling to one another's doors through snow which lay 25 feet deep in the main street, they were without mail, without any news of the world which lay behind a mountain wall. There was no way to get outside help in case of emergency. Their new-found gold lay gaudily ridiculous beneath the white deluge. The nearest railroad terminated at Cisco, 10 impassable miles away. But one December day some children climbed to the surface snow of the main street and looked to the mountains in the west. They spotted a small black figure swooping toward them over what had been a pass. Seeing that it was a man on Norwegian snowshoes (skis) they cried: "Snowshoe Thomson! Snowshoe Thomson!," recognizing immediately the living legend they had heard of but had never seen before.
That winter Thomson appeared in Meadow Lake every day, tossing out the mail as he blurred through town and up an incline which momentarily halted his furious downhill flight from Cisco. For him it was merely a routine caper.
Thomson, born in Telemark, Norway, had tried both mining and farming in the Sierra, but neither quite satisfied his pioneering instincts. In 1856 he began skiing the mail from California to the miners snowed in in the Carson Valley for the winter. The route was unmarked, precipitous and practically devoid of life. It stretched 90 grueling miles round trip from Hangtown (now Placerville) to Genoa, in what was to become the state of Nevada (it was admitted to the Union in 1864). Thomson completed the journey, round trip, in about five days. En route he ate only crackers and dry meat and drank melted snow. He slept in the open, with his head on the mailbag and his feet toward a burning pine stump.
Only part of Thomson's load (which sometimes weighed 100 pounds) was mail. In winter he supplied Nevada with needles, nails, laxatives and occasionally more exotic freight. He brought the type for the first edition of that famous Virginia City, Nevada newspaper, The Territorial Enterprise.
Thomson eventually settled in the Carson Valley, where he was venerated as a sort of Nordic snow god. During the long winters, when he was not busy with mail carrying, he challenged the California ski clubs then aborning to pit their best men against him in cross-country races. Since such contests, for Snowshoe, began with the descent of a precipice, the challenges were usually ignored. But those which were accepted produced the first formal ski competition known to have been held anywhere. It preceded by several years the first regularly held European meets, which began near Christiania ( Oslo), Norway in 1862.
Sierra skiing, always adventurous, in those days was a reckless sport. Skis were fastened to the feet only by toe straps and heel blocks. They did not respond to the turn of a foot as modern ones do. They were exceptionally long—Thomson's racing skis measured 12 feet long and 3� inches wide—and were treated with "dope," a substance similar to wax, to increase speed. With only a long pole to brake and guide them, these daring early skiers made a gay sport of what was actually a flirtation with death.
Eighteen years after Thomson began to carry the mails in the Sierra, the people of Nevada signed a petition designed to secure for him a $6,000 payment from Congress for his services. (Although he had charged a dollar or two per letter in his early days, he often could not collect.) But Snowshoe died at the age of 49 on May 15, 1876, with very little money to show for all his trouble. He did, however, receive a tribute beyond price from the young Sierra civilization. The ladies of Genoa gave their best black velvet dresses to line his coffin.