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Imagine yourself living in Placerville and the year is 1855. Mail needs to travel from Placerville to the rest of the country. The closest mail station to Placerville is Genoa, NV, the oldest town in the State of Nevada. Imagine having to cross the Sierra Nevada range in the winter. No roads, only granite covered by layers of snow. It was John Albert Thompson who told the Postmaster that he would do the job!

John Albert Thompson

Thompson was 10 years old when he came to the United States from Norway. The family settled down to a life in Illinois. The family moved a couple of times: Once to Missouri, then to Iowa. John Albert Thompson ended up moving to Wisconsin to live with his brother. What brought him out west? He participated in a drive of cattle to California.

Thompson, just like others, was swept up with the thought of making a life on the gold that was littering the ground mining at Kelsey Diggins, Coon Hollow and Georgetown. But like other miners, the gold rush could not afford him the kind of life he was looking for.

At 28 years of age he heard that someone was needed to take the mail between Placerville and Genoa and he took the job. It was between 1856 to 1868 that Thompson took care of the mail. Each sack of mail weighed between between 60 – 90 pounds. He carried this weight up 8,000 vertical feet to the summit and then down to the town of Genoa in Nevada. Placerville is at an elevation of 1,800 and Genoa is at an elevation of 4,806.

The interesting thing to point out was that there was no guarantee that he would be paid. But, he continued anyway. He crafted his own set of skis which was knowledge that he had from living in Norway. While he was called Snowshoe Thompson, what he actually used were skis that he was familiar with: The style was from Norway and they were called ski-skates.  The skis were 10 feet long and made of oak they weighed 25 pounds.

Thompson on his skiis

Thompson would make the trip up the mountain and then down.  It took him 3 days to get to Genoa (at the time it was called Morman Station and was part of Utah until Nevada became a state), and 2 days to get back to Placerville. Thompson not only took care of the mail, but he helped out folks who needed it. He is credited with rescuing prospectors stuck in the snow, transporting medicines, and brought a strange blue rock to Sacramento to the assayers office. This rock was from the site where silver was discovered and was loaded with silver ore. It was from the Comstock Lode, which spurred another rush to the area!

During the time that Thompson ran the mail, he was not compensated. The Placerville postmaster told him he was not authorized to issue him pay. When the rail system finally made it over the Sierra’s Thompson’s services were no longer needed. He went off to Washington D.C. with a petition from 1,000 postal customers asking for Congress to compensate Thompson for his years of service. He was told that he had no written contract and therefore had no right to any compensation. (Seems Congress has not changed much!) When he returned back to this area, the people of the area raised enough money to allow him to buy a small ranch where he died four years later!

What a life! I hope that you enjoyed this bit of local history!

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