- 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
- 1. Against time—each to select a hillside (or hillsides). 2. Side by side—we jointly to select a hillside.
- 3. Over a precipice 15 feet high without pole, the one jumping the farthest without falling to take the purse.
- 4. Pass at great speed within an inch of any designated object.
- 5. From the top to the bottom of the highest and heaviest timbered mountain we can find.
- 6. Lastly—run from the top of Silver Mountain Peak to the town of Silver Mountain. The altitude of the Peak is 11,000 feet, 4,000 feet above the town and distant four miles.
History does not record that this challenge was ever taken up.
The rest of Thompson’s career was somewhat anticlimactic. The transcontinental railroad had crossed the Sierras by 1869, and his snowshoe mail and express service was no longer so vital. He laboriously journeyed to Washington in 1872 as a one-man lobby, seeking payment for his years of carrying the U.S. mail; but despite a blizzard of praise and encouragement he came back without a flake of compensation. In the spring of 1876 at the age of forty-nine he died of pneumonia.
Skiing is said to be the greatest family sport in America today. Its history is a good deal more ancient than most of its enthusiasts realize. Last winter, for instance, the state of Vermont encouraged people to believe that recreational downhill skiing was invented in that state about 1912. By then most of the old-timers of the Sierras had gone down the Last Slope.
In any event, few of the thousands of skiers who swirl down the resort slopes this season will go as fast as the California miners did of old, and fewer still will have the mastery to plunge through trackless, knee-deep powder under perfect control, as the redoubtable Snowshoe Thompson did high in the Sierras a hundred years ago.