A Camel Runs Through It

camels1Take a moment and picture Virginia City’s main street in July of 1865. It’s the height of the gold rush, so quite a few people wander around, doing their Saturday shopping. Horses wait patiently at hitching posts. Perhaps a few wagons or mule trains unload their goods. Although too early in the day for much carousing, don’t be surprised to see a wild-eyed bronco careening down the street. A classic mining camp scene.

Now answer me this, did a train of camels plod through your imagining, humps swaying precariously as they strode down Virginia City’s steep street? No? Well they should have. Although not as iconic of the American West as, say, the horse, camels had a brief but storied career in Montana’s gold fields. According to historian Ellen Baumler, for a few years in the 1860s, camel trains were a frequent sight on Montana trails. In a curious way, it makes sense. While a mule could carry maybe 250 pounds and travel ten to fifteen miles a day, a camel could easily haul 800 to 1,000 pounds, and travel over thirty miles a day. Camels could make week-long trips without water, would eat anything they found, and their hoofless feet had no problems with Montana’s steep, rocky trails. Oh, and their clear third eyelid that helps them see in sandstorms? Also very useful in blizzards, as it happens.

Image from Beartooth NBC

A blurb in the July 29, 1865 edition of Virginia City’s Montana Post notes that a train of camels stopped traffic as a crowd gathered to watch the ungainly animals take on a load, and the books that I’ve noted down below have other tales of camels in Montana.

Unfortunately, camels just didn’t fit. Apparently they smell terrible, and any horse or mule that caught a whiff of camel scent would panic and bolt, leaving whatever they happened to be carrying strewn across the trail. And, while the Post said that they behaved with “lamb-like docility,” camels can be violent grudge holders, making handling them treacherous. By 1867, camels were the stuff of legends in Montana. I don’t know about you, but I always get a chuckle out of imaging those exotic “ships of the desert” roaming around the Montana landscape.

More on Camels in Montana:
Donald C. Miller, Ghost Towns of Montana: A Classic Tour Through the Treasure State’s
Historical Sites (Globe Pequot, 2008) 50.
Ellen Baumler, Montana Moments: History on the Go (Montana Historical Society, 2010) 2,
Ellen Baumler, “When Camels Came Back to Montana,” Montana: The Magazine of Western
History 50, 2 (Montana Historical Society, 2000).

Tags: history, books, newspapers, animals, Virginia City

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