David Henley: Tales of camels in Nevada
September 17, 2018
WADI RUM, Jordan — The heat here is stupefying. It had reached 112 degrees when I visited Wadi Rum, a spectacular mountain range of rose-colored sandstone and a UNESCO World Heritage site north of the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea in southern Jordan.
But when I discovered that the regional headquarters of the Royal Jordanian Desert Forces' Camel Corps also lay nearby, I ventured there as well, driving to its compound on the outskirts of Wadi Rum Village, a dusty hamlet of about 350 residents, modest houses, two schools, several small markets and a mechanic's garage which advertises itself by a pickup truck that sits atop the garage's roof.
When I arrived, unannounced, at my destination, I was greeted warmly by Capt. Tarek Zyad, the commanding officer, and his men, all clad in the Jordanian army's dark green uniform and black beret. Members of the local Zalabia Bedouin tribe, they laughed good-naturedly when I unwittingly stepped into a pool of camel droppings which filled my shoes and rose up to my ankles.
The troopers were preparing to saddle up their nine camels, resting in the shade of an adjoining pasture, and venture into the desert, which is inaccessible to four-wheel-drive vehicles, in search of criminals and smugglers of tobacco, electronic equipment, stolen cars and trucks, illicit drugs and illegal weapons. Rescuing lost hikers and infiltrators from neighboring Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Iraq also are among their responsibilities.
Wadi Rum, which translates into "valley" or "dry river" in Arabic and Hebrew, was a prime filming site of David Lean's 1962 motion picture "Lawrence of Arabia" which starred Peter O'Toole, won seven Oscars and celebrated the exploits of British Army Col. T.E. Lawrence who bivouacked at Wadi Rum with his Bedouin troops during combat operations against the pro-German Ottoman Turks in World War l.
My visit with the Jordanian Camel Corps, while on a three-week trip to the Middle East, immediately jogged my recollection of a unique chapter in Nevada history: The U.S. Army also had camels, which during the Civil War served as pack animals attached to cavalry units that patrolled the Southwest and West, according to Michael Deagon, historian at Fort Tejon State Historic Park, which lies off Interstate 5 north of Los Angeles and is the site of the original Fort Tejon (1854-1864) that also had been sent several of the camels.
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The three-masted, 547-ton Navy supply ship appropriately named the USS Supply, on two successive voyages to Turkey, Tunisia and Egypt in the mid-1850s, had brought back 88 one-hump Dromedary and two-hump Bactrian camels thought to be swifter and more agile than the Army's horses, oxen and mules. Upon their arrival in the United States, they were sent to military installations as far west as California. The camel trains, which traversed what was later to become Southern Nevada, also carried surveyors, engineers and soldiers tasked to blaze a new wagon route across the nation, added Deagon.
Although none of the camels were attached to Army cavalry and infantry units assigned to Fort Churchill and other Northern Nevada forts during the Civil War, from where troopers were dispatched on patrols to Carson City and Virginia City in search of Confederate spies and sympathizers, they did serve, however, as civilian pack animals in Western and Central Nevada following the war.
Although the camels had been pack animals during the war, they eventually proved to be unsuitable to the West's rough and rocky roads, had not gotten along well with the Army's mules, horses and their drivers, fought among themselves, kicked and bit anyone who came near them, were expensive to feed and quarter, and the Army eventually auctioned off the smelly, surly and cantankerous beasts to circuses, zoos and several Nevada freight haulers, said historian Deagon.
One of those Nevadans was a fellow named Sam McLeneghan, who bought a barn in Dayton to house his camels which transported salt from a marsh southeast of Carson City to the Comstock where it was used in the milling of silver ore. Salt also was hauled from Salt Wells east of present-day Fallon and an area north of Fernley. Camels, as well, were used as pack animals to haul freight from Carson City, Virginia City and Reno to Austin and other mining towns in central and eastern Nevada.
But, eventually, the Nevada 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 were even fitted with leather shoes to lessen the pain. Plus, the camels tended to bite people, spit their vile cuds at them and proved to be generally obnoxious. If fact they became so obnoxious that the Nevada Legislature in 1875 passed a bill, that was signed into law by the governor, banning camels from the state's public roads. Similar laws were passed by local lawmakers in Virginia City and Lyon County.
It wasn't long before the Nevada camels were phased out, having been supplanted by mammoth freight-hauling wagons, regional Nevada short-line railroads and the transcontinental railroad which was completed in mid-1869.
By the late 1890s and early 1900s, the camels had died off or strolled into the desert. One wandering camel reportedly had a skeleton strapped to its back. Another camel supposedly had bright red hair and carried a witch on its back. The tales go on and on, and I believe every one of them!
Meanwhile, here in boiling-hot Jordan, the Royal Jordanian Camel Corps is alive and well. The nine camels at the fort will be saddled up soon and ridden into the desert in search of bad guys. And I'm going to hose off my shoes.
David C. Henley is publisher-emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News and Fallon Eagle-Standard.