The famed “Camels of the Cariboo” are well-enough known that many people are familiar with the bare bones of the story: camels were brought to B.C. during the gold rush to pack freight, proved to be a complete disaster, and the ill-fated business ended with the camels let loose to fend for themselves. As with many stories from long ago, however—which are much repeated but little examined—the truth is far more complex than this bald summation would indicate.
Take, for example, the question of precisely why someone would have thought to bring camels to the interior of B.C. It was no mere caprice, or whim, or fanciful notion: it was based on a very successful example south of the border in the late 1850s, when the U.S. Army Camel Corps was established. Between 1856 and 1861, dozens of dromedaries, or one-humped (Arabian) camels, were delivered from Arabia to the United States, where they were used as pack animals—with great success—in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.
Lt. Edward Beale of the Camel Corps thoroughly tested the animals in the harsh environment of the Mojave Desert, and reported that he had travelled 4,000 miles with them without incident. He said that in his experience, one good camel was worth four good army mules, and this sentiment was echoed by other officers who worked with the animals. Beale said that during one test, a camel rose and walked off carrying a load of 1,256 pounds, or more than five times what a mule could carry. It was concluded that a camel was far superior to a mule when it came to packing freight along the desert trails of the American west.
Buoyed by this success, the American Camel Company started up in 1859. Rather than procure camels from Arabia, however, the company obtained Bactrian, or two-humped, camels from Manchuria, which were used to transport supplies to the silver mines in Nevada.
The start of the American Civil War in 1861 saw the end of the U.S. Army Camel Corps, and the dispersal of its animals, which—in a sad foreshadowing of the fate of their B.C. counterparts—were allowed to wander into the surrounding desert to fend for themselves. Shortly thereafter, the American Camel Company announced, via a newspaper advertisement, that it was selling all its animals; and here is where the connection to the B.C. interior starts.
In 1862 John C. Calbraith (or Calbreath; sources vary on the spelling) of Lillooet was looking for a suitable pack animal for the Cariboo trail, and had heard glowing reports of the animals used by the U.S. Army Camel Corps. When he saw that a San Francisco firm was offering camels for sale, he snapped them up at a cost of $300 each (about $8,000 each in today’s dollars). After all, camels were accustomed to hot and dry conditions, and could go for days without food or water; unlike mules, which needed frequent daily stops for both.
Unfortunately, Calbraith did not realize, or appreciate, the difference between the Arabian camels of the Army Corps (which were not offered for sale) and the Bactrian camels of the American Camel Company (which were); and he did not ask why they were suddenly for sale. Bactrian camels, it turned out, were totally incompatible with the horses and mules that made up the bulk of the pack animals in Nevada, and which had an unconquerable fear of the beasts, stampeding at the first sight or smell of them. Complaints about damaged goods and the disruption of pack trains soon followed the first appearance of the camels, and it was not long before things grew so bad that the Territorial Legislature passed a law making it a crime to “cause a camel to be on a public road during daylight hours”.
Calbraith, unaware of this state of affairs, ordered two dozen camels (give or take; the number varies from source to source), which arrived in Victoria in April 1862 and were then taken to Lillooet (which boasts “The Bridge of the 23 Camels”, named in their honour). The animals were immediately put into use along the old Cariboo trail beginning in June 1862, when a camel pack train started north from Lillooet to Barkerville. The success (or not) of the animals can perhaps be judged from the diary entry of a young Englishman named Henry Guillod who wrote, in August 1862, “Was bothered today by camels of which there are about a dozen here who have a neat idea of walking over your tent and eating your shirts.”
Another drawback that soon became apparent was that the camels’ soft feet, which were fine for a sandy desert, were ill-suited to the rocky terrain of the Cariboo. Boots made of rawhide and canvas were used to protect the camels’ feet; but nothing could be done about the terror they inspired in the other animals in use along the trail, because of the camels’ vicious temperament and the stench that was associated with them. A contemporary report states that “Complementing their mean temperament was their odour—so potent that it alone caused pack animals to bolt. Even washing the camels in scented water didn’t help. The ‘Dromedary Express’, as it became known, soon was hated throughout the Cariboo.”
Despite the failure of the initial run, another one took place in May 1863, when a heavily-laden camel train left Lillooet for the Cariboo goldfields. However, this venture was as unsuccessful as the first, and a number of claims for damage were lodged against the camels’ owners. Some of the camels were sold back into the States, while others were simply let loose east of the North Thompson River. The last of the animals died in 1905, near Grand Prairie (now Westwold); but not before having its picture taken, in commemoration of one of the oddest and most colourful stories in the Cariboo’s history.