LOOKING FOR AL –
Discovering the Real Al Johnson, the Heroic Mail Carrier, and on at least one Occasion the Female Impersonating, Downhill Champion of the 1880’s
-Written by Michael Callihan
Google the phrase “Al Johnson Race costumes” and you’ll find photos of skiers at Colorado’s Crested Butte ski area dressed in costumes ranging from the HMS Titanic to a giant praying mantis, all competing in the annual Al Johnson Uphill/Downhill Telemark Race. The 42 year-old event is named after a snow-shoeing mail carrier from Crystal, Colorado, who in the 1880’s, navigated the hostile 18 miles between the isolated mining camp and Crested Butte carrying 40 pounds of mail on his back each way, every week.
Before we continue, though, a time-warp clarification: “snow-shoes” in the 19th century was the name given to what today would be called “skis”. And, what we call “snow-shoes” today were named “Canadian webs” by the hardy folks back then. The term ”ski” was not widely used in the West until the 1900’s, well after Al Johnson’s time. So, with that settled, we’ll continue.
I became interested in finding the real Al Johnson while writing “Let ’em Run,” my play about the Great Race of 1886 – a series of four “snow-shoe” races held in Crested Butte, Gunnison, Irwin, and Gothic to determine the best ‘shoer from the mining camps in our neighboring Elk Mountains. To my surprise, I discovered that the race was proposed and organized by none other than Al Johnson, that very mail carrier from Crystal.
And it was in Crystal where Al made his mark. As general store proprietor and Postmaster, and eventually as the owner of valuable mining claims, he was widely respected for his business acumen and outgoing personality. He was also brave – very brave. In January, 1886, and in total darkness, he snow-shoed up the deadly Crystal River Canyon, past the hundred foot drop into the aptly named Devil’s Punchbowl waterfall, to the avalanche-ravaged mining camp of Schofield. After assisting there, he ‘shoed on to Crested Butte to enlist more help. Al was the kind of man you’d want as your best friend.
Modeled after the Montreal Snow Show Carnival held each winter near Al’s hometown in Canada, the Great Race of 1886 was widely covered. One newspaper called it “the first organized snow-shoe race in the entire Rocky Mountains”. In its March 13, 1886 edition, The Denver Times enthused: “The time may come when people will travel as far to see a Colorado show-shoe carnival as they now go to see the Montreal contest.”
The pre-race promotion was hyperbolic. Crested Butte’s ‘favorite son’ entry was Charlie Baney, who, the local newspaper gushed, was “16 years old, a mere boy, who for perfect control of his nerves and muscles, cannot be surpassed.” Johnson was described as “the most graceful snow-shoer the Rocky Mountains have ever produced. As a daring adventurer on ‘shoes, he is noted.” No wonder the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad needed two special trains to transport spectators to the race course two miles south of Crested Butte.
Johnson, Baney, and fourteen other racers competed that day. The fastest four then ran a final heat. What a race that was! Johnson and Baney immediately shot ahead of the other two. Baney then passed Johnson as they roared down the slope, but Johnson rallied and moved past Baney. Midway down Baney again passed Johnson, but then Johnson again passed Baney! With time running out, Baney doubled himself up “like a small ball” and within inches of the finish line, passed Johnson, winning the race in 16 seconds at a speed of 70 miles per hour. On wooden ‘shoes with leather bindings, no less.
The next race was March 5th near Gunnison. Young Baney, who had imbibed certain adult beverages before the final heat, crashed short of the finish. Johnson finished third overall. At the Irwin race which followed, Johnson applied the wrong snow-shoe ‘dope’ and finished out of the top three. Baney finished third and collected $15 prize money. At Gothic – the final event in the series – both failed to finish.
Charlie Baney ended the Great Race of 1886 with a 1st and a 3rd, while Al Johnson earned a 2nd and a 3rd. As the Gunnison Review Press concluded: “Baney was slightly faster, but Johnson was by far the more graceful. Most people consider it a draw.” Indeed, it was.
So what would 19th century hero Al Johnson think of the zanily costumed racers competing in the 21st century race that bears his name? Historical accounts suggest he’d join in the fun. In September of 1889, for example, after most of the women had left Crystal for the winter, the remaining citizens decided to hold a dance. A quick headcount of the ladies that stayed revealed that the camp was one woman short for the event, however. Resourceful as only pioneer women in an isolated mining camp can be, three local ladies dressed up Al Johnson – postmaster, mine owner, newspaper publisher, Justice of the Peace, livery stable operator and leading citizen – in feminine finery.
The Carbondale Avalanche of September 4, 1889 reported the outcome this way:
“Last Saturday night the boys up in Crystal got up a dance and a pleasant time was had. A. A. Johnson, the dignfied postmaster there, was as good an impersonater of feminality as was ever seen. He dressed as a lady because they were one short for the set.
Mr. Johnson, the female impersonater, was dressed up in a very artistic style by Mrs. Steinmeyer, Mrs. Usher and Miss Mollie Bruce, and at the end of the dance he was declared the “Belle of the Ball.”
A praying mantis on telemark skis? The Titanic sailing down the slopes of Crested Butte? They’d be small potatoes compared to Big Al Johnson, the heroic, fun loving, entrepreneurial, snow-shoeing champion of the 1880’s, flying down the course on eleven foot long ‘shoes with his billowing petticoat and colorful ribbons fluttering in the crisp winter wind.