- Historic Sites
When The Forty-niners Went Sixty
They had no chair lifts, and they called their skis snowshoes, but they were the fastest men alive
December 1970 | Volume 22, Issue 1
What may come as a surprise is that this swell swoop has been going on for over a century. It was just about a hundred years ago that a relatively unsung hero named Tommy Todd, of Howland Flat, California, was clocked at fourteen seconds for 1,806 feet from a standing start—which averages out to well over eighty-seven miles an hour. Since this was at a time when even crack express trains hadn’t made eighty miles an hour yet, there is every reason to think that Tommy was the fastest man alive in 1870.
It all started, apparently, when a few Norwegian-American gold miners, contemplating the Sierra Nevada’s overabundant snowfall, decided that their native method of mastering this element made sense in California. The Norwegian ski —which they translated, somewhat quaintly, as “snowshoe”—was originally a utilitarian device designed to distribute a man’s weight and enable him to travel in deep, soft snow without sinking. Fashioned out of long slats of California pine or spruce, skis worked well to that purpose in the Sierra mining camps. By 1858 they were in use in several mountain areas, apparently sometimes as a means of transporting otherwise unobtainable mail to snowbound miners.
Postal service on skis gave rise to one of the legendary figures of the Far West: Showshoe Thompson. Born in Norway in 1827 as Jon Thorsen Rue, he lived there long enough as a boy to become adept at the native art of gliding through snowy mountain country on skis. When his family migrated to the American Middle West in 1837, changing their name to Thompson, he grew used to the flat prairie land; but he never forgot the mountains—or the skis. In 1851 he lit out, a bit late, to join the California gold rush. He ended up, after much labor and little luck, farming in the Sacramento Valley.
Thompson’s nostalgia for powder snow had plenty to feed on there. The white peaks of the Sierra Nevada loomed on the eastern horizon, and it was only eighty miles or so to mountain passes where the winter drifts were often twenty feet deep. In 1855 he quit farming and moved to the mining community of Placerville, in the foothills of the Sierras. There he made himself some crude, heavy skis and started practicing. After a few weeks of that, and improvements in the design of his skis, he found that he could maneuver the ten-foot “shoes” up, down, and across almost any type of snow terrain that the Sierras presented in that region. Early in 1856 he started carrying sacks of mail and sundries back and forth between Placerville and Genoa in Carson Valley, Nevada—something nobody had ever managed to do before in winter, though many had tried it on horses or mules or with ordinary webbed snowshoes.
Snowshoe Thompson’s speed, endurance, and fearlessness mightily impressed the mining camps on both sides of the mountains, and the dependability of his “snowshoe express” soon made him a local idol. “The only way in which the people of Carson Valley can procure, in the winter season, such articles as they may happen to need,” said the Placerville American in 1857, “is through Mr. Thompson.” He was also toting the United States mail on a regular basis, although a promised government contract of $1,000 a year was so far only a hope. Thompson kept going anyway, a swift courier who was not to be stayed by snow, rain, heat, gloom of night, or unkept promises. Snow, in fact, seemed to be his natural element.
It was probably word of Thompson’s exploits on skis that led to their use, purely for pleasure, about a hundred miles farther north in Plumas and Sierra counties, California. Gamblers by nature, many of the gold and silver miners no sooner saw how fast a man could come down a mountain on skis than they thought about racing—and placing bets. Informal “snowshoe” clubs were in existence as early as 1860 at places whose names read like entries in a Bret Harte concordance: Poker Flat, Whiskey Diggings, Cold Canyon, Onion Valley, Sawpit Flat. By the time the North and South, back East, were locked in the death struggle of the Civil War, the inmates of the High Sierra settlements were engaged in regular but amicable combat every winter. There wasn’t too much other diversion (not counting drinking) when the snow lay deep upon the mountain slopes, and nearly everyone, including women and children, got enthusiastically involved in the new sport.
It was speed they were after. The typical racecourse was set down a steep, smooth slope unimpeded by trees or rocks and a thousand to two thousand feet long. There was no thought of turning: the idea was to point your “shoes” straight down the fall line, push off with a stout pole, and let ‘er rip. Innovations soon appeared. It was discovered that, up to a certain point, longer skis were an advantage because they gave greater front-to-rear stability and showed less tendency to skid sideways; many racers used twelve- or thirteen-footers. (That’s nearly twice as long as the average racing ski today.) A narrow groove cut down the center of the ski bottom was also found to improve tracking ability on a slippery, packed slope. At high speeds air resistance made a great difference, and the preferred racing stance was a low crouch almost identical to the “egg” position taken by modern Olympic downhill racers when they are on a straight-away schuss.