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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.
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:
- 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.