Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Placerville and Snowshoe Thompson

El Dorado County August 29, 1993

If the great gold rush has a hub, it’s probably here in Placerville. It was also the terminus of the silver rush of the Comstock Lode in Nevada. Rather than yak up old Hangtown and its history, this dispatch is going to concentrate one just one person, that in a way, ties things together.

The Sierra Nevada Mountains have little respect for man or machine as this last winter of 2010-11 proves. As of this writing on May 8th, there is still 15 feet of snow on the road over the Tioga Pass and they may not be able to open it till well into June. The railroads, highways 50 and 395, and Interstate 80  are often forced to temporarily close in storms. Imagine back in the 1800’s the isolation Californians had from the east…that is until Snowshoe Thompson came along. “People Lost in the World, Uncle Sam Needs a Mail Carrier” – read an ad in the Sacramento Union, and Jon Tosterson saw it and said “I’m your man.” Actually, he was the only person to answer this call to carry mail during the snowed in winter months over the Sierras between Placerville and Mormon Station (to become Genoa) in the Utah territory (to become Nevada).

Raised in the Telemark region of Norway he knew the ten foot long oak planks would take him over the snow a lot quicker than the basket style snowshoes than Indians and Canadians used. They called anything that kept you on top of the snow ‘snowshoes’ then, Also, it’s likely he’d figured out an early version of the telemark turn allowed by using a flexible birch binding, and with a long pole for balance, braking, and climbing, he was set. With minimal rations of dried meat and biscuits, light clothing, and no water (eating snow), he’d set out with a pack weighing up to 100 pounds and ski nonstop for the most part for three days to cover the 90 mile route. It’s still amazing when you think about it, and yet with all the marathoning and iron manning going on these days, there are as many people answering this challenge as there were with the original Sacramento Union ad. As an avid back country cross-country skier for a number of years living in the eastern Sierras in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, thinking of John Thompson’s abilities to travel that distance, and with that weight and equipment remains almost incomprehensible.

They even came out with this postal stamp for him while he was still delivering the mail, and yet he was never paid.

While he was at it, he was among the first few pioneers of skiing in California and was instrumental in the birth of ski racing, and by setting poles for gates, invented the racing gate.     

The Snowshoe Thompson (non state) landmark and sculpture is a 5 minute walk up Placerville's Main Street.

This song has taken some time to put together and refine, and perhaps it should be called ‘Ninety Miles to Genoa’….who knows, but one should probably stick to first instincts. In calling the good people of Genoa, Nevada to check on pronunciation and it turns out they call it Gen-NO-ah, and not Gen-oh-wah…a big deal in phrasing. There are two other songs about Snowshoe Thompson; one done by Johnny Horton, and the other by Tennessee Ernie Ford, and both quite frankly suck. An example:
Go man go
Gonna get on thru the snow
Mush man mush
Gonna get on thru the slush
Go man go
Means mush in eskimo
So mush man, mush man, mush man go!

…….Yikes! That’s scary awful.

The recording of this song should be done sometime this summer of 2011.

SNOWSHOE THOMPSON              © Radio Flier Music

Ninety miles to Genoa
Through the night and day

Bindings strapped, wide brim hat
Light coat of mackinaw wool
On his back a heavy pack
He skis from Placerville

He ate dried meat and hard tack
And for water he ate snow
Eighty pounds upon his back
And Eighty miles to go

(Chorus) Haul the mail Snowshoe Thompson
Haul the mail away
80 miles to Genoa
Through the night and day

No blankets just a charcoaled face
So’s not to go snow-blind
A three day race at steady pace
No sleep of any kind

Up along the American River
Where other men would freeze
Medicine and mail to deliver
Up the slopes on giant skis

(Chorus) Haul the mail Snowshoe Thompson
Haul the mail away
60 miles to Genoa
Through the night and day

Some days so nice he could ski it twice
Others were pure hell
Sleet would turn the snow to ice
And he’d slide clear off the hill

Its Johnson’s pass and on to Myers
Brings Tahoe into view
30 foot drifts test his desire
To bring the mail through

(Chorus) Haul the mail Snowshoe Thompson
Haul the mail away
40 miles to Genoa
Through the night and day

Twenty winters through the wild
And never lost his way
Learned to ski as a child
Raised back in old Norway

Leavin’ Woodfords and on his way
A-skiing three days in
No reward and never paid
For mail deliverin’

(Chorus) Haul the mail Snowshoe Thompson
Haul the mail away
20 miles to Genoa
Through the night and day

Everybody wants to know
Why he did this for no pay
Through the snow at ten below
He was thanked in many ways

For the town shuts down, they gather ‘round
Once again he did prevail
Skis in their hero Snowshoe Thompson
With the U.S. mail

(Chorus) Haul the mail Snowshoe Thompson
Haul the mail away
All the way to Genoa
Through the night and day

Plaque inscription: NO. 475 OLD DRY DIGGINS-OLD HANGTOWN-PLACERVILLE - This rich mining camp was established on the banks of Hangtown Creek in the spring of 1848. Millions in gold were taken from its ravines and hills, and it served as a supply center for mining camps and transportation terminus for the famous Comstock Lode. John M. Studebaker, Mark Hopkins, Leland Stanford, Phillip Armour, and Edwin Markham were among well-known men who contributed to Placerville's history, as did John A. 'Snowshoe' Thompson, who carried from 60 to 80 pounds of mail on skis from Placerville over the Sierra to Carson Valley during winter months.

Location: NE corner of Bedford and Main, Placerville

Google maps: 38.729707,-120.799028

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