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Snowshoe Thompson: A winter olympics story

If La Salle County’s pioneer Fox River Settlement had faced less hardship, it’s possible the sport of skiing may not have achieved its level of popularity in the United States.

A pivotal person, it seems, was John “Snowshoe” Thompson. His place in history is as the legendary skiing mailman of the Sierra Nevada.

From 1856 to 1876, he made 90-mile trips through snowdrifts and howling blizzards to deliver mail between Nevada and California.

In the days when mail typically was transported from the east coast to the west coast by ship around the tip of South America, Snowshoe Thompson was sometimes the only overland link.

Thompson was born as Jon Torsteinsson Rue in Telemark, Norway, on April 30, 1827. His father died when he was 2 years old. At age 10, he traveled with his mother to the Fox River Settlement in La Salle County.

They crossed the Atlantic in the Swedish brig "Njord" as part of a group of 56 Norwegians “to find a brighter future North America,” according to a newspaper account. They arrived in New York on Aug. 15, 1837, and the following month arrived in Chicago on their way to La Salle County.

Norwegian settlers had come to La Salle County in 1834 under the leadership of Cleng Peerson. The Norwegian Settlers Memorial on Route 71 south of present-day Norway records their arrival.

Probably the Fox River Settlement and its hardships did not seem like the “brighter future” Jon's mother may have anticipated.

A year later, they were on the move, this time to Missouri, and then other points in the Midwest.

By 1851, Jon — now known as John Thompson — was in California. In 1855, he spotted a newspaper ad that would change his life: "People Lost to the World; Uncle Sam Needs a Mail Carrier."

The mail route was from Placerville, Calif., to present-day Genoa, Nev. — 90 miles one way.

Although others had tried the trek on snowshoes, Thompson chose the skis he remembered from his boyhood in Norway, which were known in America as "Norwegian skates" or "Norwegian snowshoes."

Although locals were skeptical, Thompson proved the man for the job. He not only delivered the mail, carrying 60 to 100  packs of correspondence and goods for 20 years, but rescued snowbound prospectors and performed other heroic acts.

Thompson died May 15, 1876, in Nevada, and is buried in the Genoa Cemetery.

There are several Snowshoe Thompson memorials in Nevada and California, and he is credited as the Father of California Skiing. On Saturday, Feb. 24, the 18th Annual Snowshoe Thompson Ski & Snowshoe Celebration will be held at the Lake Tahoe Golf Course in South Lake Tahoe, Calif.

There also have been unsuccessful efforts to get a commemorative stamp issued to honor Thompson. Ironically, he is not considered to have been a government mail carrier. He never signed a contract and was never paid for his services.

Chief sources: Articles “Snowshoe Thompson" by Jill Beede and “The Soaring Eagle of the Sierras” by Ron Watters.

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