The Mule Lobby and How the Camels Won the West before the Golden Spike

“The Last Spike” by Thomas Hill (1881)

Before that golden spike was driven establishing the Transcontinental Railroad in Promontory, Utah in 1869 there were some serious issues of traversing many parts of the dry and barren American Old West and Southwest that paved a path to camels in the Army and a mule lobby in Washington DC.

There were probably several stubborn old mules in Washington at the time and I’m not sure if it was the early beginning of the Democratic donkey.

Actually, Andrew Jackson’s opponents called him a “jackass” during the 1828 presidential campaigning and where the donkey originated… an odd little fact.

Click on the image for details.

Ten years before the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad a small boomtown in the Utah Territory was established as Virginia City as it was home to the first substantial silver deposit in the United States. The silver deposit; the Comstock Lode and Virginia City were both internationally known and the mining district was recognized as the Queen of the Comstock with a population that grew to 25,000 residents in the height of its mining history. Virginia City was booming.

Virginia City, Nevada is an excellent place to spend anywhere from a few hours to a day or two and is an easy day trip from Lake Tahoe or Reno. Check out some highlights from our trip to Virginia City, NV.

Virginia City was named as one of the “top 12 most distinctive destinations in America,” by The National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The growing population of the American Old West and Southwest along with military needs in the Southwestern territories, known in the times as the Great Desert, were in growing need of supplies without a method of transportation. The War Department was encouraged to purchase camels revered as the “beasts of burdens” to help shape a supply chain if Congress would appropriate monies for the acquisition of the animals. The idea suggested in some accounts came from a naval officer after an expedition made through Death Valley. The naval officer, “Ned” Beale came to national fame as being the person responsible for starting the gold rush after bringing back gold samples from California to the east coast in 1848… ten years prior to the discovery of the Comstock Lode.

The United States government funded the plan to use camels to move supplies through the dangerous and vast territories as an experiment and thus began the US Camel Corps. Apparently, a single camel could pack 600 pounds of supplies and Beale was known to say he’d rather have a single camel than a dozen mules.

Thirty-three camels of various origins were purchased by the US government and transported by the Navy on the USS Supply which was commissioned to acquire and bring the animals from the Mediterranean back to the United States.

Oh, give me a loan for the camels to roam… imagine if the mule lobby wasn’t so successful as the wild frontier might still have camels today. Instead of visiting the Wild Burros of Custer State Park you would instead journey along Wildlife Loop Road hoping to see camels and bison!

Begging Burros of Custer State Park is a good read if you’re considering a visit to South Dakota.

The US Camel Corps experiment was brought to an end in part due to the start of the Civil War but also due to the successful mule lobbying. Yet, the camels still had adventures ahead and people to terrorize.

One of the camels in its military retirement, meaning it was set free, did roam the southwest and earned the name, “Red Ghost”. Marshal Trimble, author of Arizoniana describes the folk tales that came from the feral red-haired camel whom traumatized citizens of Arizona from stories ranging from “Red Ghost” standing over 30 feet tall, trampling people to death, having the eyes of the devil, eating grizzly bears and the “Red Ghost” could vanish into thin air when cornered.

Click image for more details.

Interestingly, camels can eat cactus; thorns and all and have been known to chew on bones so this red-haired beast probably started a few of the ghost tales honestly.

“Red Ghost” met his end in an Arizona tomato patch where a rancher shot him down. An article was published about “Red Ghost” and his reign of terror in the New York Sun; word traveled far for the times.

Click on the image for the link.

With the end to “Red Ghost” you may be curious why the red-haired camel was roaming Arizona and where all the other camels went following the start of the Civil War.

I was also curious why at the end of the boardwalk in Virginia City, Nevada a photo board was painted with a camel and banner for Virginia City camel races?

Why camel races? And, this blog is the answer to my question.

Virginia City, Nevada holds camel and ostrich racing each year. How the ostrich racing became involved is another story to research.
Click on the image for link.

Where did camels from the Camel Corps end up and what is the connection to Virginia City?

When the Confederate forces seized Camp Verde they set some of the camels free. Some of these camels were later caught and used by Union forces, some caught by Confederate Forces and used by the Confederate Post Office, another camel was the mascot of a Mississippi infantry before being shot down in the battle of Vicksburg, a favorite white-haired camel named Said can be found in Washington DC at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History Hall of Bones after having been killed along the supply route in 1861.

Other camels which were housed in California were ordered to be auctioned off by the War Department and were purchased by a frontier entrepreneur, Samuel McLaughlin, who shipped the camels to Virginia City, Nevada for use hauling mining supplies.

We now know why there were camels in Virginia City, Nevada but why camel races?

McLaughlin held camel races in Sacramento, California to large crowds in efforts to fund the animals transport to Nevada. Camel races became a profitable spectator sport and why Virginia City holds annual camel races to raise tourism dollars for the town.

For more information on the camel races check out a link to Virginia City Tourism Commissions website.

The rest of the Army’s camels were sold to zoos and circuses and even naval officer Beale who purchased several of the camels to keep for his own personal expeditions with his family.

As the needs grew for supplies along the building of the Transcontinental Railroad many of the camels were collected and purchased to once again work hauling supplies; this time they worked and solved the need for a supply chain along the building route of the Transcontinental Railroad and this is how the camels in a ten-year journey won the West before the Golden Spike.

Camels along the supply route for the Transcontinental Railroad
Article on the Transcontinental Railroad
An interesting article on the Mule Lobby
“Mule Power” by, Norman Rockwell

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