The West’s great camel experiment sought to bring Mother Nature’s irritable, spitting, cactus-eating off-road vehicle to the mines and mountains of Nevada.
The great desert of the West beckoned explorers, exploiters and settlers throughout the 19th century. They wanted to do things to the land: map it, mine it, build homes and businesses on it. But how do you spread civilization over unforgiving terrain without the benefit of decent roads? In the 1850s, the U.S. government decided to experiment with camels in the West.
It made sense. Camels are desert animals. Their stamina is legendary. Their phenomenal ability to carry loads had been widely described, and they already had their proponents in the American government. From 1855 to 1864, Western entrepreneurs and even the U.S. military undertook what might be called the Great Camel Experiment of the West.
The possible value of camels in the West was outlined in a lecture by George Marsh at the Smithsonian Institution in 1854. Marsh stressed the value of the camel in transportation. He said, “(T)he ordinary day’s journey of the loaded Bactrian camel (is) forty miles, and without burden at from fifty to sixty-five miles; and my correspondents in Bessarabia and the Crimea agree in stating that upon a good dry road a pair of Bactrians will draw a load of 3,000 to 4,000 pounds a distance of fifty miles without eating, drinking, or halting.” In other words, lean, mean walking machines.
Given such accounts, camels caught the imagination of entrepreneurs in the West as well. Otto Esche, a San Francisco merchant and importer, saw an opportunity in the humped beasts. He knew the need for salt as a refining agent in gold mining. A camel could carry significantly more than a mule, about 1,000 pounds vs. 400 pounds. It could forage on desert plants no other animal would eat, and could go long periods without water. With freight costs running $120 per pound, Esche saw an opportunity.
He left for the Orient in 1860. His trip was long, but upon arrival in Siberia, he started overland to buy camels. He was able to buy 32, of which 15 survived the trip to the Siberian coast, to be loaded on the ship Caroline E. Foote for transport to San Francisco. These Bactrian camels were then shipped back to San Francisco, as Esche went back out to buy more. The trip over the Pacific was not easy, but all 15 survived to be off-loaded in San Francisco in July 1860.
After their arrival, they were corralled near Mission Dolores to regain their strength. Camels were quite a sight in 1860 San Francisco, and crowds — attracted by advertisements that appeared as far south as Los Angeles — turned out Oct. 10 for a showing and auction of 13 Bactrian camels. But the curious spectators didn’t open their wallets: Sales were disappointing, and prices led the auctioneers to stop the auction early. The two camels that actually sold brought less than $500 each, well under their cost.
Meet the herd
Undeterred, Esche continued his buying in the East, and eventually put together a herd of 60. He hired some camel drivers to handle and care for the animals, and contracted with two ships, the Caroline E. Foote again and the Dollart, to take them to San Francisco. Captain Worth of the Caroline E. Foote again successfully brought his 10 camels to San Francisco. Captain Muggenborg was not so successful, and 24 of his 44 camels died in the crossing. This meant a considerable financial loss for Esche and his partners. Esche sued Captain Muggenborg and won a settlement of $260 for each camel lost, a total of $6,240.
Esche still had a considerable investment in camels in California. While he was at sea, one of his partners, Julius Bandmann, took nine camels to Virginia City and the Washoe Mines in Nevada. Taking the Big Trees route over Ebbetts Pass, the caravan showed that the Bactrians could make the trek over the 8,730-foot pass. Bandmann began shipping salt from the Columbus Salt Marsh in west-central Nevada to Virginia City, making a profit of more than $200 on each trip. Bandmann then sold the camels he had and returned to San Francisco. There he found 10 more waiting for him, and began to get them into shape for use, eventually incorporating the surviving 20 from the Dollart as well.
Esche, who had also been injured during the voyage on the Dollart, was happy with the $2,000 Bandmann had from the sale of the first nine camels. Bandmann became the man to know to get camels in San Francisco. John Callbreath, who worked for Frank Laumeister in Victoria, British Columbia, eventually bought 23 of the 30. These camels were transported to Canada and used in an express company headed by Laumeister. After the sale, Esche faded from the scene.
Laumeister’s camels were used in the British Columbia’s Fraser River mines from 1862 until 1865. After that, many of them were moved to the territories of Montana, Idaho and Washington, where Laumeister ran his Dromedary Express until 1867, when they were moved to Nevada and let loose to fend for themselves.
Camels on the loose
One of the reasons camels were useful was their ability to thrive on plants no other pack animal would eat. When the first government camels were offloaded in Texas, a lack of wood forced the building of a cactus corral, which the camels proceeded to eat. Because of this ability, as camel ventures were dissolved, the animals were let loose in the desert to fend for themselves. The camels found this to their liking and slowly multiplied, becoming a known sight to prospectors and others who frequented the deserts.
The original nine camels sold by Bandmann in Virginia City continued to haul supplies in Nevada. As early as 1863, they were bringing salt into the mines in the Walker River area. A March 14, 1863 article in the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise read:
THE CAMELS: The ‘ships of the desert’ just arrived from the Walker River marshes, with a cargo of salt for the Central Mill, held a levee in this place and were visited by many curious and wondering bipeds. The venerable patriarch of the band did not seem to relish much the close attention of his visitors, and gave vent to his indignation and contempt by spitting at all who ventured near him. A coquettish old female who reclined at full length on the ground, screamed pettishly when some forward youngster attempted to toy with her shaggy locks.
Other newspaper accounts often noted their ability to carry huge loads and their effect on other animals. Camels were said to scare horses and mules. They smelled bad, and had a tendency to force others off of public roads. Men who worked with camels claimed that camels were not the problem, but they did have a bad reputation.
By the 1870s, Frank Laumeister was running camels into Elko and as far south as Pioche. In 1872, he led a train south through what was then Lincoln County, to Alamo and then along the Old Spanish Trail past the Las Vegas Ranch, where he headed south. There were opportunities in the Arizona mines, and he was ready to take advantage of them.
Laumeister’s were not the only camels in Nevada. Two Frenchmen, brothers named Chevalier, had rounded up 30 camels and ran their own caravans. Between the two groups, the effect of camels on teamster-led pack animals were well-known — and not liked.
In fact, by 1875, the Nevada State Legislature took on the thorny problem. A letter in the Feb. 4, 1875 Reece River Reveille read:
The Senate devoted a large portion of the morning session to a little fun over the Assembly bill to prohibit camels from traveling public roads and highways in this state. A motion was made for its reference to the Committee on Public Morals, to which an amendment was offered that it be to the Committee on Indian Affairs. A discussion ensued, in which some jokes were cracked about humps in general, and, finally a substitute that the bill be referred to the Lyon and Churchill delegation.
In spite of the revelry noted in the letter, the following law was passed on Feb. 9, 1875:
An act to prohibit camels and dromedaries from running at large on or about the public highways of the State of Nevada.
The People of Nevada represented in Senate and Assembly, do enact as follows:
Section 1. From and after the passage of this Act it shall be unlawful for the owner or owners of any camel or camels, dromedary or dromedaries, to permit them to run at large on or about the public roads or highways of this State.
Section 2. If any owner or owners of any camel or camels, dromedary or dromedaries, shall, knowingly or willfully permit any violation of this Act, he or they shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor and shall be arrested, on complaint of any person feeling aggrieved; and when convicted, before any Justice of the Peace, he or they shall be punished by a fine of not less than twenty-five (25) or more than one hundred (100) dollars, or by imprisonment of not less than ten or more than thirty days, or by both such fine and imprisonment.
Nevada’s roads were now safe from camels.
The law was first used in September 1875, against a caravan in Dayton. In a tongue-in-cheek account in the Reece River Reveille, a reporter wrote: “Nothing is safe from these voracious critters, as they will bolt down a Murphy wagon, four rods of rail fence, a Yankee stone boat or anything else at a single meal. As pack animals for use across a desert waste they can’t be beat, but when it comes to a bump of destructiveness they have one as big as a Brooklyn preacher.”
End of the hump
The 1870s were both the heyday of camel use in Nevada, and the end. By the close of the decade, caravans were leaving for Arizona and Mexico for use in the mines there, and camel express firms were no more. However, as late as 1905, there were still camels in Nevada. That year, a notice in the Goldfield News stated that other newspapers were reporting that another camel express firm might be formed. The news thought this unlikely, noting the report “… probably originated in the fertile imagination of a ‘space filler.’” The last reported sighting of a camel herd in Nevada was in 1905, when some prospectors stumbled on a herd of 16 near Silver Bow.
Why did they disappear? Of those not shipped out of state, many were captured and sold to circuses and zoos throughout the United States. In fact, the last of the government-imported camels died at the Griffith Park Zoo in Los Angeles in 1934. Others probably died of old age or were killed by teamsters, but it seems their ultimate demise can be traced to the fact that both whites and certain Indian tribes found them edible.
As to the last of the many camels brought to the United States by Otto Esche or the Texas civilian importations, who can say? Though there were rumors of sightings as late as the 1940s, it is likely they are all gone today, having been eaten, shot, captured or perhaps just dead of old age. However, after a few libations, who knows what someone might see in the wee hours of the morning?