David C. Henley: Camels came to Nevada 160 years ago
Editor’s note: Guy W. Farmer is on vacation
My wife and I were recently driving east on Highway 163 in southern Clark County when we came upon State Historical Marker 104 which commemorates a little-known but fascinating era in Nevada history that began 160 years ago and ultimately would affect 19th century transportation in the Comstock, Carson City, Fallon and the mining camps of central and eastern Nevada.
The roadside marker, not far from the high-rise casinos in Laughlin on the Nevada side of the Colorado River, chronicles the arrival of the U.S. Army Camel Corps which carried surveyors, engineers and soldiers tasked to blaze a new wagon route through the Southwest, a portion of which lay at the southern tip of the future state of Nevada.
Headed by Lt. Edward F. Beale, a Navy officer who several years later would become an Army brigadier general, the camel expedition crossed the Colorado River north of Fort Mojave, Ariz., on Oct. 18, 1857. There were 25 one-hump Bactian camels and their four drivers or herders in the procession, all of whom had been imported into the United States by ship from the Middle East on orders of then-Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, who four years later would be named president of the Confederacy.
The Camel Corps came into existence in 1855 after Davis became convinced camels could supplement horses and mules in the transportation of supplies and heavy weapons, and he convinced Congress to authorize $30,000 to bring the camels and their drivers on a Navy vessel from Egypt to the U.S. to serve as military beats of burden.
The long and rough voyage from Egypt to Texas in April, 1856, caused the deaths of a half-dozen camels. One camel was born on the trip. A later shipment brought the total number of Army camels to 77.
It was thought by Davis and other high-ranking Army officers camels would prove superior to horses and mules during marches through the sandy and rocky terrain of the American West. But on the lengthy overland journey from Texas to Southern Nevada, this was not to be the case. The camels’ hooves split on the rocks and boulders, they bit, kicked and spit at their Army handlers and anyone else who came too close, they had terrible tempers, they attempted to toss off their heavy packs and disrupted citizens and livestock with their loud screams and terrible smell.
In a nutshell: The camels performed poorly, and with the arrival of the Civil War in 1861 and the advent of the transcontinental and local railroads, the Camel Corps was disbanded and the camels were auctioned off by the government to zoos and local freight haulers or released into the desert, where they roamed for years. The last camel, whose name was “Topsy,” died at the Griffith Park Zoo in Los Angeles in 1934. This would have made her at least 80 years old, and I believe this story about Topsy’s age is a myth!
Following our Laughlin stop, Ludie and I, on a week-long trip to Arizona to visit family and attend the graduation at Northern Arizona University of Zach Schaefer, our great-nephew, drove to Quartsite, Ariz., on Interstate 10 where we stopped at a monument that honors one of the camel drivers who accompanied the original group of camels from Egypt to the U.S. which traveled onto Nevada in 1857.
His name was Hadji Ali, but his Army masters called him “Hi Jolly.” His impressive pyramid-shaped monument stands on Cemetery Road, which is appropriately named because it is here, at Quartsite Cemetery, where Hi Jolly and one of his favorite camels are buried. Dedicated on Jan. 4, 1903, the monument is topped with a large metal camel-shaped plaque that describes and honors the services of Hi Jolly who died at the age of 73 in 1902.
Local historians say the camel buried near Hi Jolly had many children and grandchildren, some of whom roamed the desert until the 1940s.
As for the camels that ended up in Northern Nevada after being let go by the Army: Arriving in Virginia City in September, 1861, they were procured by local entrepreneurs and put to work hauling salt from a marsh southeast of Carson City. Used in the milling of silver ore, salt also was transported to the Comstock from Salt Wells east of Fallon and an area north of Fernley.
Camels, as well, were used to haul freight from Virginia City, Carson City and Reno to Austin and other mining towns in central and eastern Nevada. A fellow named Sam McLeneghan bought a stone barn in Dayton to house his camels which transported firewood from the Carson River to Virginia City, Carson and points north and east.
But eventually, the camels suffered the same fate that plagued them during their Army service: They scared people, horses and mules in the growing communities of Northern Nevada, their hooves and feet became damaged by the rocky soil and some of them were even fitted with leather shoes in an effort to lessen the pain. Area newspapers, including the Carson City Daily Appeal, soon editorialized against the smelly, loud and temperamental creatures, and the City Council of Virginia City in 1872 prohibited them from downtown streets during daylight hours.
And in 1875, the Nevada Legislature passed a bill that was signed into law by the governor which banned camels from the state’s public roads.
It wasn’t long before the camels were phased out, having been eclipsed by mammoth freight-hauling wagons and the railroads and banned from Nevada’s highways. By the late 1890s and early 1900s, the few camels left in Northern Nevada were roaming the desert.
But stories, according to historian Douglas McDonald, existed into the late 1930s and early 1940s that told of wild camel sightings in the Nevada desert. One wandering camel reportedly had a human skeleton strapped to its back. Another camel had bright red hair and carried a witch on its back. The tales go on and on and I’d like to believe every one of them!
David C. Henley is publisher emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News.