- 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
Then there was “dope.” Dope was essentially wax which, applied to ski bottoms, made them slide much faster—but the various combinations of beeswax, tallow, bear grease, pine tar, whale oil, bacon fat, and lord-knows-what-else were beyond reckoning. Everyone had his favorite—and highly secret—formula. One rich miner is said to have had his daughter bring home from a European trip some candles blessed by the pope, hoping thereby to impart divine celerity to the snowshoes of the racers he sponsored.
A snowshoe match held by the clubs of Plumas and Sierra counties on a fine, sunny day in February or March was a convivial affair. The prizes were generally money—from $2.50 to $100—but sometimes the competition would be for a champagne dinner or for ten or twenty gallons of beer. Either way, a portable bar was usually set up at the bottom of the slope, where spectators could fortify themselves against the brisk mountain air and racers could imbibe courage, beforehand, or raise a celebratory glass after a race was over. This sometimes led to chaotic but hilarious contests, as witness this account in the La Porte, California, Mountain Messenger in the winter of 1863: The snow-shoe races between the members of the firm of Wolf & Co. and of the Pocahontas Mining Company came off last Sunday at Table Rock. A large crowd was assembled. … Jacob Wolf ran against George Gangloff, of the Pocahontas Company, for ten gallons of lager. The latter passed the stakes about 50 feet ahead of his antagonist. The next race should have been between M. Shindler and John Wilsdorf, for ten gallons of lager, but Mr. Shindler being too much doped at the time, his place was taken by Mr. J. Wolf, who won this race, Mr. Wilsdorf falling when about half way. The third race between Robert Winter and John Shram, for ten gallons of lager, Winter fell when about half way and Shram also fell when near the stakes, but by wading through the snow with one shoe attached he came out victorious. In the meanwhile, ten gallons of John Wolf’s dope, in the shape of lager beer, reached the hill, when almost all present doped their throats to their heart’s content, for it was all used in no time. The multitude dispersed, well pleased, to meet again at John Wolf’s, to use the other twenty gallons of manufactured dope, which proved, as far as I can learn, too fast for some.
La Porte, which is one of the few mining-camp ski centers that still exists as a California village, claims to have been the headquarters of the world’s first formally organized downhill ski races. Its Alturas Snow Shoe Club held a “world’s championship” meet in February, 1867, and repeatedly for several years thereafter, with a silverstudded belt (“valued at $75”) as the first prize in the men’s finals. There were races for everyone—in 1867, for instance, a Ladies’ Club Purse of twenty-five dollars, won by a Miss Lottie Joy. Lottie was obviously the favorite of the journalist who wrote up the meet for the Mountain Messenger: “Our snow-shoe pet dropped low, with pole under her arm, and just scooted down the track like an arrow to the mark [she averaged just a fraction under fifty miles per hour], while the others, carrying too much sail, and with shoes wide apart, came through all standing, but too late to win.” How fast Lottie might have gone in the skintight stretch pants worn by lady racers today is a matter for dizzy conjecture.
It was a La Porte that Snowshoe Thompson came a cropper, literally and figuratively, in the championship races held in 1869. Now living at Silver City in Alpine County, California, he heard of the frivolous doings up Plumas County way; and it is likely that he considered the Alturas Club racers a bunch of upstarts. Anyway, when they published an alluring handbill (see below) advertising their 1869 meet, Snowshoe decided to show them a thing or two.
Alas, he had not counted on the refinements produced by competitive free enterprise. He knew nothing of “dope”; and he was disturbed to find that the Alturas racecourse was a straight downhill run on packed snow where his ungrooved bottoms would not hold well. In the first race he entered he went into a long skid and crashed into some spectators on the sidelines. Trying once more, he skidded again and fell, while the crowd chortled to see the famous Snowshoe Thompson humiliated.
Snowshoe went back to his friends in Alpine County, back to his mail route—and back to the deep powder snow that he knew how to ski better, in all probability, than anyone in the world at that time. But he sent a challenge to the Alturas snowshoers that made clear enough the difference between what he could do and their packed-snow, straight-down-the-slope technique: Now, boys of Plumas and Sierra, come over here and I will run for $1,000 a side for each of the following: