John A. “Snowshoe” Thompson: The Father of California Skiing


A Love Your Parks Tour Pony Express Story by Nancy J. Reid & Lisa D. Smith, as assigned by Melinda Taylor, Steven Ward and Greg Ward, of Yerington Inn and Coffee Slingers

If you’re interested in the history of the Pony Express, northwest Nevada has some fascinating destinations to visit. One of them is Mormon State Historic Park in the quaint village of Genoa. Settled by Mormon pioneers and built as a trading post in 1851, this site was the first permanent non-native settlement in Nevada and a stop for weary travelers on the Carson Route of the California Trail. Along with the historic stockade and wagon shed, a museum with pioneer-era artifacts is housed in a replica of the original trading post that burned down in 1910.

The old post office in Genoa was once used as the Pony Express station. That site is now a vacant lot just south of the courthouse, however, the picnic area for Mormon Station State Park is where the original livery stable once supplied riders with fresh horses. It’s here where you will see the impressive statue honoring John Albert Thompson, who fondly earned the name “Snowshoe Thompson.” 

In 1837, when he was just 10 years old, Thompson moved to Illinois with his widowed mother. They were later joined by his brother and sister, and eventually settled in Iowa, and then Wisconsin. In 1951, Thompson drove a herd of milk cows to California and settled in Placerville. He did some mining and then bought a small ranch in the Sacramento Valley. In 1860, he homesteaded a 160-acre ranch in Diamond Valley, south of Genoa.

While he was not a member of the Pony Express that ran from April 1860 to October 1861 between St Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California, Thompson did deliver mail from 1856-1876 between Placerville and Genoa, and later to the nearby mining town of Virginia City. He frequently traveled “Johnson’s Cutoff”, a route first cut by explorer John Calhoun Johnson, who was also the first man to deliver mail over the Sierra Nevada mountains. Today you can loosely follow this trail by driving U.S. Route 50 from Placerville to South Lake Tahoe.

Because of the severe Sierra winters, Thompson began carrying the mail and equipment while wearing “Snow Skates,” traveling 90 miles between Placerville and Genoa. He wore 10-foot skis while balancing a sturdy pole in both hands, a cross-country style of skiing he learned back in Norway when he was a young boy. One of the earlier pioneers of backcountry skiing in the United States, he taught others how to make and use the skis and became known as the “Father of California Skiing.” 

Despite his twenty years of service, allegedly, the federal government never paid him for delivering the U.S. Mail. 

Snowshoe Thompson died on May 15, 1876, and is buried in Genoa.


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