Snowshoe Thompson was the Paul Bunyan of the Sierra Nevada

[Mike McPhate, California Sun. An undated portrait of Snowshoe Thompson.]

A crowd formed in the foothills town of Placerville to see him off on his first mail run in January 1856. Someone was said to shout, “Good luck, ...

Two centuries ago, delivering mail across the icy Sierra Nevada was virtually impossible during the winter — until the arrival of a blonde-bearded Viking with piercing blue eyes and an uncommon fortitude.

John Thompson had immigrated with his family from Norway when he was 10 years old. Enticed west by the gold fields of California, he settled as a young man on a cattle farm in the Sacramento Valley.

In 1855, Thompson saw a newspaper article about the need for a mail carrier to reach people east of the Sierra range who were “lost to the world” during the snowbound months of winter. He offered his services.

Using memories of his Scandinavian boyhood, Thompson carved a pair of oak planks about seven feet in length that he secured to his feet with straps.

Californians had never seen skis before. Friends warned him that he’d bash his head against a tree on the down slopes. Others, according to a newspaper account, “thought him demented.”

A crowd formed in the foothills town of Placerville to see him off on his first mail run in January 1856. Someone was said to shout, “Good luck, Snowshoe Thompson,” and the legend was born.

Thompson completed the route — about 90 miles from Placerville to Genoa, Nev., on the other side of Lake Tahoe — in a blisteringly fast three ...

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