Albert A. (Al) Johnson was a leading citizen of Crystal from it’s inception. Al and his brother Fred, both from Canada and both superb skiers (at the time called Snowshoeing), alternated carrying the mail between Crested Butte and Crystal. Al Johnson also was editor for the “Crystal River Current”, postmaster, hotel and general store operator and owned a number of mining claims including the Lead King. It has always taken a lot of jobs to survive up here.
The mail route, known as the “Snowshoe Express”, was through narrow Crystal Canyon and over Schofield Pass. Al, known as the “top snowshoer of the Rocky Mountains”, developed his technique and speed out of necessity. Whenever the avalanche danger was high, he took a deep breath and let his twelve foot boards “run” down the twenty-seven percent grade of Crystal Canyon. Prayers were said…the snow slid…apparently he never fell at the wrong time.
The Gunnison County Snowshoe Club was organized the Winter of 1886, with the biggest race of the season on Washington’s birthday, February 22. Crested Butte put up a fifty dollar purse, each contestant paid a dollar…first place got twenty dollars, second eleven dollars and third place took home six dollars. A special Denver and Rio Grande excursion train was chartered to bring the fans. Over 1000 excited spectators lined the 525 yard, thirty-five degree course just south of town.
The four favorites, Charlie Baney of Crested Butte, Harry Cornwall of Irwin and Al Fish and Al Johnson of Crystal, ended up in the final heat. Baney and Johnson took the lead from the get, neither man ever touching his guide pole to the ground. But Charlie Baney, a slight sixteen year old, raised on snowshoes, doubled himself into a small ball to beat out Al Johnson by a scant two feet.
Source: “The Gunnison Country” by Duane Vandenbusohe