In 1851, at the age of 24, Jon Torsteinson-Rue (later changed to John A. Thom(p)son) drove a herd of milk cows to the gold fields and later settled in the Sacramento Valley.
Later in 1855, Thom(p)son saw an ad in the Sacramento Union: “People Lost to the World; Uncle Sam Needs a Mail Carrier.” All attempts by postmen to cross the Sierra on woven Canadian and Native American snowshoes had failed.
As a young child in the Telemark region of Norway (birthplace of Thom(p)son in 1827) ski shaped snow-shoes (called ski-skates) were as common as ordinary shoes. Few had faith that he would make it over the 7,500 foot passes on his homemade 10 foot long, 25 pound oak skis. But one optimistic voice in the crowd called out: “Good luck, Snowshoe Thom(p)son” and he set out to become a legendary postman.
Two to four times a month for twenty winters, regardless of weather, Snowshoe Thom(p)son set out at the appointed hour. His mail run took 3 days and his mail sack often weighed up to 100 pounds: carrying medicine, emergency supplies, clothing, books, tools, pots and pans.
Snowshoe Thom(p)son often rescued prospectors caught in the snow, and would carry them out on the back of his skis as they held their arms around him. In 1859, Thom(p)son was asked to take a strange blue rock to Sacramento to have it assayed – it was rich in silver. The Comstock Lode had been discovered, signaling the end to the California Gold Rush and a new stampede began, this time from the west to east and Thom(p)son was asked to expand his mail route to Virginia City; year round.
Snowshoe Thom(p)son died of appendicitis which developed into pneumonia on May 15, 1876. The Genoa postmaster S.A. Kinsey said: “Most remarkable man I ever knew, that Snowshoe Thom(p)son. 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.”