If Only There Was Time Travel . . .

Every time I send an email to friends, or a manuscript via internet  to my editor, I realize how very lucky I am to live in today’s world rather than in period we write about. I still can’t even imagine how so many words fly between so many people in so many countries today.

So I decided to look back on how they communicated before the railroads brought the country together. It was with a great deal of difficulty.

Mail didn’t just mean letters from home for forty niners marooned in the gold country or emigrants in the Oregon wilderness. Telegraph lines hadn’t reached them in the early 1850’s, and newspapers was the only form of communication for the westerners.

The delivery of mail was the government’s obligation but in practice much of it was contracted to private carriers. Congress would decide on a route, and the Postmaster General would choose a contractor. If the contractor failed to deliver, the contract could be annulled and the contractor’s costs never recouped. They usually went to great lengths not to let that happen, often being killed in doing so.

For instance, the first contractors for a trek of 900 miles between St, Lake City and Sacramento was a two man outfit. They decided that one would start from Sacramento and the other from Salt Lake City. But within six months one was killed by the Indians on his trek, and the other barely survived when on one trip, all the firm’s stock – 13 mules and a horse – froze to death in a single night in northern Nevada. The survivor partner and his helpers loaded the mail on their backs and slogged 200 miles through deep snow to Salt Lake City.

These conditions produced some other stalwart characters. One was Snowshoe Thompson. An express service had been inaugurated in the mining town of Placerville, California. In 1856, a severe blizzard closed the road to the hamlet of Genoa some 90 miles away. John Thompson, a Norwegian despite the name, told the Placerville postmaster he could get the mail through. No one believed him. Then he produced a pair of long skies, an item no miner had ever seen before. The postmaster was dubious but had little to lose. He agreed, and our Mr. Thompson skied 90 miles across the Sierra Mountains, navigating by the sun during the day and stars at night. He had a 75-pound sack of mail on his back and made the run in three day. He made the return trip – mostly down hill – in two days, again carrying this time a pack back.

The skiing mailman, according to Time Life’s “The Expressmen,” was mobbed by grateful miners on his return and he was given a regular run through the winter months. It was said he could outpace and out howl wolves.

And then there was an ambitious Californian named Fenton Whiting who decided to use dogs to pull sledges to transport up to 600 pounds of packages and mail to miners on each trip over the mountains during winter time. It was successful for nearly seven years until a snowshoe for horses was introduced. Then he used horses.

So there we had what was probably the first mountain skier in the west and the first working dog sled. Western ingenuity was, it seemed, was limitless.

So today, when you turn on the computer or your cell or Ipad, you might give a thought to how wondrous they truly are. I would love for Mr. Thompson or Mr. Whiting to time travel to today. Can you imagine their expressions?

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9 thoughts on “If Only There Was Time Travel . . .”

  1. I always learn something new from your blogs, Pat. What amazing stories, and what tough men. I can imagine how precious a letter from home must have been. No wonder people took such pains writing them and saving them.
    But boy do I love my email…

  2. Excellent blog, Pat! And Thompson is, indeed, a Norwegian name (according to my very Norwegian grandmother). I loved the story of the skiing mailman. 😀

  3. Tracy. . . Now I learned something new. I didn’t know Thompson was Norwegian. My grandmother is also 100 percent Norwegian, so I’m glad to know this.

  4. All those things we now do for fun and exercise (and when I saw WE, I’m speakign metaphorically, I don’t ski or dog sled much–or exercise for that matter) were once very practically, innovative, LIFE SAVING skills.

  5. Wow, what brave men! Wish I could time travel back to meet some of them. Your stories really captured my imagination. I’d never heard of snowshoes for horses. Great blog on a subject seldom explored any further than the Pony Express.

  6. I don’t know whether I want to travel back or not unless it was just for an hour or so. I’m too spoiled now.

    We’re about ready to have a giant storm here with tornado warnings so I’ll be off for a while, but I really appreciate all your comments. Will be back as soon as possible.

  7. Hi Pat,
    What a great blog. I have always loved the idea of time travel. I wrote a book with that as the premise (should be out in May or so) and just loved writing it, but I don’t think I would ever really want to do it. I’m too spoiled, too, as you say! LOL Can’t imagine the everyday hardships people had to go through and deal with. I think my greatest fear would be one of my kids getting sick or hurt and not being able to make them well. Of course, people “back in the day” had to live with that possibility all the time. I didn’t know any of these interesting facts about early mail delivery. I got an education in your blog today!
    Cheryl P.

  8. I had actually heard of Snowshoe Thompson before, but the others are new to me. Most people don’t realize just how lucky they are with the ease of communicating we have today. Even the mail in the US is a good deal. Having lived on the economy in a third world country, I can attest to the unreliability of mail delivery in other countries. I got my absentee ballot for our presidential elections a month after the election and packages were routinely opened and rifled. Phone service and e-mail have become something we take for granted. We should all stop and think what it would be like with just the regular postal mail to keep in touch with those we love or have business with. It would certainly turn the clock back a long way.

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