Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Camel Express: Exotic Freight Conveyance in the Pacific Northwest
by Karen Meador
“The Camels are Coming” made the headlines in more than one newspaper in the American West of the late 1850s. Under the sponsorship of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, dromedaries (one-humped, Arabian camels) were imported to facilitate Army transportation in the surveying and exploration of the newly-acquired Southwest. Camels could carry larger loads than horses or mules, travel longer distances without food or water, and function in sand or snow.
Gold discoveries in British Columbia in the late 1850s and early 60s added a new dimension to the narrative. Word had spread of a single camel’s ability to carry over half a ton, a capacity worth “four good mules.” A British Columbia businessman imported the sturdier, two-humped, Bactrian camels from Asia for use in the Cariboo mines in 1862. Despite their superior freight-hauling ability, their feet were ill-suited to the rocky trails of the Cariboo. Some handlers made rawhide and canvas boots for their soft feet. The camels also proved difficult to manage for teamsters unaccustomed to their mercurial temperament; they panicked horses and mules along the narrow pack trails, sometimes causing stampedes and runaways. Lawsuits ensued, forcing the owner to sell off much of his herd.
Freighters on the U.S. side of the border saw potential in using the exotic animals to supply the mining districts of Eastern Washington, Northeast Oregon, Idaho and Montana. A number of them purchased Bactrians from British Columbia, as well as former Army stock. The “ships of the desert” were used to haul mail and provisions to the remote mining camps throughout the region, with the newly-completed Mullan Road, between Walla Walla and Fort Benton, Montana, carrying “a good deal of camel traffic.”
One early settler remembered observing the camel trains:
They would be loaded with sacks of flour until you couldn’t see anything of the camels except their heads. . . . They would go up and over the mountains in the roughest and steepest places and never refuse to keep moving in their slow, deliberate way.
The camel pack trains operated throughout the mining regions of the Pacific Northwest into the 1870s. Once again; however, the exotic animals proved disruptive, prompting one early settler to report that their “peculiar aroma and looks were enough to raise Cain on the [Mullan] road.” Idaho’s Stampede Lake derives its name from one such encounter.
These issues, as well as the coming of the railroad, led to much of the stock being sold to mining and freighting operations in Nevada and Arizona, as well as Sonora, Mexico.
Largely as a result of being the major supply point for regional mining operations, Walla Walla grew to become the largest town in Washington Territory by 1870. Many years later Walla Walla businessman William Kirkman reported, “I remember when Seattle boasted of being as large as Walla Walla.”
Karen Meador, a member of the Neely Mansion Association, is also an independent scholar who lives in South King County.