“Longboarding” returns home: the origins of America’s winter sports industry are in the early years of the California Gold Rush

Long before its popularity as recreational activity, skiing in the Sierra was chiefly a competitive sport, stimulated by wagers between immigrant Norwegian miners in Plumas, Sierra and Nevada counties, just north of Lake Tahoe. Most had learned the sport as children. They fashioned homemade 10-to-13-foot-long, 4-inch-wide skis from Douglas fir. Known as “snowshoes,” they were grooved on the bottom; the tips were soaked, steamed and bent.

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The most famous of the early Sierra skiers was John A. “Snowshoe” Thompson. For twenty winters, beginning in 1856, he delivered the mail between Genoa, Nevada–the first town in the state–and Placerville, California, called “Hangtown” at the time. Traveling over the high peaks near present day South Lake Tahoe, he delivered the mail through the depths of winter … 30 to 40 feet of depth to be exact, the average snowfall in this area. With 50 to 80 pounds on his back, Thompson would make the eastward journey in three days, often returning in two. Carrying neither blankets nor a heavy jacket, he relied on his exertion and an evening campfire for warmth, reportedly surviving one blizzard by lighting a dead tree on fire. Legend has it, he was never lost, even in the most violent storms, and that he could jump off 15-foot-high precipices.

Snowshoe showed up to race the longboarders once, but he didn’t have the right “dope” to beat them. Dope was a kind of early wax applied to ski bottoms, and the secret to making the longboards quick. Bill Church of Sawpit is often credited as the original dopeman. His “Sierra Lightning” formula consisted of spermaceti (a waxy solid obtained from the oil of sperm whales), Burgundy and Canadian pitch, balsam, Venice turpentine, oil of cedar and camphor all cooked together. (The proportions and cooking time were highly guarded secrets.) In 1867, this concoction allowed “Cornish Bob” Oliver to win a championship downhill racing’ competition–covering a 1,805-foot course in fourteen seconds at 88 miles per hour!

In 1872, a member of the country’s first organized ski society, the Alturas Snowshoe Club, reportedly set a speed record of 100 mph. Today, a number of Plumas County residents are descendants of the original racing miners.

When the California Gold Rush ended, longboard ski racing fell into obscurity. But in 1993, the Plumas Ski Club helped to reintroduce the largely forgotten sport by hosting a series of races near the historic mining town of Johnsville. Competitors dressed in the style of late 19th century miners.

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Craig Beck, a resident of North Lake Tahoe, was introduced to longboarding and ended up founding the National Longboard Association. He has also devoted himself to the authentic reproduction of vintage Norwegian “snowshoes.” Using as a modal an extant pair found in a Johnsville museum, Beck has fashioned several sets from scratch, a process he describes as “a labor of love.”

According to Beck, “Snowshoe” Thompson and his contemporaries did more than just introduce speed skiing to the United States. They also invented the first chairlifts, using ore carts driven by steam engines to travel up to the top of the hills.

Beck has gotten a number of fellow Tahoe skiers into longboarding, including Tamara McKinney, the winningest American ski racer of all time. His National Longboard Association has sponsored competitions, as well as performing in between Olympic downhill runs at last year’s Winter Games.

The National Longboard Association (membership about 400) is currently organizing an open meet at Alpine Meadows in December 2002, with an additional race tentatively scheduled for March. If you’re interested in competing, you’d better start whittling those skis!

 

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