Carson Valley legend “Snowshoe” Thompson
Looking up at Jobs Peak, in all of its snow-capped glory, from the floor of Carson Valley, I’m thinking that I cannot be the only one who is happy to see snow. The Sierra resorts now have a steady business with skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, and sledding. Here in Carson Valley, we can also enjoy snowshoeing and cross country skiing when we have enough snow.
Actually, Carson Valley is legendary for “snowshoeing”. Yes, legendary, thanks to a very hardy Norwegian-born gentleman who was a Nevada pioneer and who also saved the small town of Genoa during one of the worst winters still on record.
In the record snowfall winter of 1856, John A. “Snowshoe” Thompson answered a local Placerville, California newspaper ad, calling for anyone who could deliver mail and messages to the small snowbound town of Genoa, on the remote Eastern Slope of the Sierra Nevada in what was then Western Utah Territory. Thompson became a hero by traversing between the two towns twice a month, on what we now call skis, yet were then called “snowshoes” or “snow skates.” He delivered mail, small articles and messages in the 20 years that he covered the route, with his rucksack sometimes weighing as much as 100 pounds. In his travels, he experienced several adventures that would challenge the hardiest of men.
Interestingly enough, he was never paid by the government in the 20 years that he carried their mail, although he was compensated by private citizens for their articles. On a bright May afternoon in 1876, Thompson felt unwell after working on his ranch and took a rest before dinnertime. Never again leaving his bed, several days later he passed away from what we now know as appendicitis. He was only 49 years old.
Thompson was married to Agnes Singleton of Genoa in 1866, and while they lived on his ranch in Diamond Valley, located at the southern edge of Carson Valley, he was considered a citizen of Genoa. His funeral was held in the County Courthouse in Genoa, now a museum operated by the Douglas County Historical Society and open to the public from May through October. In front of the Courthouse Museum and mounted on the opposite side of the Pony Express Centennial Monument is a plaque dedicated by the Snowshoe Thompson Chapter 1827 E Clampus Vitus organization.
The famous “Mailman of the Sierra” left his mark throughout Carson Valley, as well as in the northern parts of California and Nevada. In Genoa, you can visit Mormon Station State Historic Park and see his statue where there is a plaque noting his origins and some of his accomplishments.
John A. “Snowshoe” Thompson is buried alongside his wife Agnes and young son Arthur in the Genoa Cemetery, one half mile north of town on Main Street/Jacks Valley Road. In February of 1960, the Norwegian Olympic Ski Team travelled from Squaw Valley, California to visit his grave. The team paid their Telemark compatriot homage by dedicating a plaque to be placed there. When visiting his gravesite, you will also see a plaque dedicated to him by the Fellow Lutherans of America and Scandinavia.
Dedicated to sharing the history of this amazing pioneer is the “Friends of Snowshoe Thompson” organization, based in Genoa. The members hold seasonal events to keep his history alive. In the fall they generally host an evening of Chautauqua where “Snowshoe Thompson,” portrayed by re-enactor Steve Hale, interacts with other
historical figures, such as “Mark Twain,” portrayed by re-enactor McAvoy Layne. In the spring, the organization hosts a “Snowshoe Thompson Ski & Snowshoe Celebration” where families can enjoy an interactive tour with “Snowshoe Thompson” as portrayed by Steve Hale, along with an antique longboard ski demonstration and lunch.
This year, the 18th Annual Snowshoe Thompson Ski & Snowshoe Celebration will take place at the Lake Tahoe Golf Course in South Lake Tahoe, California on Saturday, February 24 from 9:00 am to 1:00 pm. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “The event isn’t even in Carson Valley, let alone Nevada!” You’re correct, but the event organizers needed to make sure there would be snow, so they had to choose a higher altitude! However, there’s nothing stopping you from driving over Luther Pass, through Hope Valley and down into Carson Valley, taking Thompson’s original winter route, to spend the rest of your day on February 24th visiting all of the places he would have been a part of when he was alive. You can stop in at Markleeville, California and then drive Foothill Road into Genoa, just a few short miles away.
Not into snowshoeing or cross country skiing?
Now, if you’re not into snowshoeing or cross country skiing, we still have other February events. The Carson Valley Inn is holding its “32nd Annual Shooting Weekend” February 22–24. Also, the 2018 Topaz Lodge Fishing Derby is ongoing through April 15th.
And after all, it is February, and I well know that “love is in the air,” especially around Valentine’s Day. So why not spend a relaxing evening at one of our local restaurants? The Carson Valley Inn’s fine dining restaurant CV Steak has a Valentine’s Day offer you won’t want to miss. How convenient: you can also book a room at the Carson Valley Inn and stay the night!
If you enjoy history, happenings and hospitality, then Carson Valley is the place to be in February — or any other month of the year.
Cheers and Happy Valentine’s Day to all of you lovers out there!
— Kim Harris