The legends of the West are fantastic, but they seldom top the strangeness of the cold, hard facts. Consider the case of the U.S. Camel Corps, which hit upon the best solution for Western transportation problems until the arrival of steam locomotives. Freight roads in the arid West crossed waterless stretches of up to ninety miles and often killed the best pack animal, the mule, by the drove. But such a journey was a walk in the park for the famed "ship of the desert," the camel, whose ancestors had evolved in North America.
Quartermaster George Crosman--who later had to figure out how to supply Camp Floyd near Lake Utah--proposed using camels for military transport in the 1830s. When freighting problems grew with the nation, the army imported dromedaries (single-humped Arabians) and lighter Bactrian (two-humped) camels.
In 1857, a former Navy lieutenant, Edward Beale, set out from Texas in command of the U.S. Camel Corps and seventy-five of the animals. Beale's experiment proved camels could pack a ton of goods--four times as much as a prime mule--cover forty miles a day and go ten days without water. They swam across the Colorado River and plowed through three feet of snow. Their drivers boasted that "camels would get fat where a jackass would starve to death." Despite Beale's success and then-Secretary of War Jefferson Davis' hope that camel cavalry would frighten violent Apaches into submission, the Civil War put the Camel Corps out of business.
Western entrepreneurs took up the cause and used the beasts to supply remote mining camps. The California and Utah Camel Association bought army surplus camels and sold them in Nevada. San Francisco merchant Otto Esche imported camels from China to establish an express to Great Salt Lake City. He gave up in 1862, but the camels he left in Nevada created such a stir that the state Legislature there banned them from public roads in 1875. Utah desert rat Charles Kelly tracked one of the last surviving pack camels to Grantsville, where it would terrorize local horses but let local children ride it in the early 20th century. The camel, reportedly named "Jerry," even appeared in a Pioneer Day parade with a Mrs. William Carter on his back.
It wasn't that the camels couldn't adapt to the West; the West couldn't adapt to camels. They were not friendly animals, even to fellow camels, and they held grudges. Despite their bad temper and ability to spit the contents of their stomachs with the accuracy of a Kentucky marksman, it was camel stench that helped do them in.
Odor usually was not an issue for Western muleskinners, but the slightest whiff of camel stench played havoc with a mule train. Sometime in 1865, camels stampeded a pack train bound for Missoula and turned the whiskey-bound town's Fourth of July celebration into Montana mud. It was not long before camels were banished from northern mining camps.
Their vast advantage as pack animals notwithstanding, it was America's affection for horses that doomed Western camel caravans. Camels and their legends long survived among the boomtowns and ranches of Arizona, Nevada, Colorado and Utah. A grizzled sideshow camel with a U.S. brand turned up in San Antonio in 1903. Arizona declared camels extinct in 1913, but hunters reported seeing them in the desert around Yuma into the 1950s. And what happened to Jerry? Grantsville folk say only that he wandered off and was not seen again.
For more, see Ellen Baumler's essay in this summer's issue of Montana magazine and Hal Schindler's story about "Jerry" in the January 2, 1994, edition of The Salt Lake Tribune