West Coast Camels: It was more than straw that broke these camels’ backs
David Eusebio // Columnist
Twin Peaks, Washington; New York, Riverdale; Fargo, North Dakota; Hawkins, Indiana. Some strange things have happened in these cities. Well, at least in the fictional world. Since I moved to the Lower Mainland, I’ve heard crazy stories about the area. Crazier than the stories I’d heard while living in Orleans, Ontario. As I overlooked BC on the flight to Vancouver, I had a feeling this was a big valley with big secrets.
For instance, there was a time when you didn’t have to go to the dreaded Greater Vancouver Zoo to see camels roam the West Coast; you could see them suffer in our natural habitat!
It began in America (of course) in 1856 when The US Camel Corp. established that camels were the best option to transport goods across the Mojave Desert. Their ability to carry up to 1200 pounds motivated San Franciscan merchant, Otto Esche, to purchase twenty-five camels from Mongolia—these had two humps! However, when civil war began, the goods the camels delivered were damaged, and they scared away other packers’ mules and horses. Lawsuits were filed, and it became a crime to have camels roaming the streets. Luckily, this all happened to the Confederates. The camels had to go, and there was one sucker from BC who wanted them.
In 1862, twenty-five camels from San Francisco were advertised in Victoria’s daily newspaper. It was addressed “TO PACKERS,” so John Calbraith, a packer, purchased them to be used as beasts of burden to deliver goods from Lillooet to the Cariboo goldfields. He paid $300 USD each for them; today, that would be over $11,000 CAD per camel. They were sent to Esquimalt in mid-April, but only twenty-three arrived. Calbraith was off to a good start. A week later, he had a replacement for one of his missing camels. Okay, it was a newborn camel.
The animals faced ridicule as residents had never seen a camel before. However, Frank Laumeister, a brewery owner, saw the fast lane to living the Canadian Dream after learning about their weight capacity. Eventually, most townspeople grew fond of the animals—one jackass pestered the calf but received justice when the mother snorted two gallons of dirty water at him.
In May, the camels boarded a steamboat to New Westminster to begin duty on the Cariboo Trail. Twenty-two camels arrived; the mother and calf had gone missing. The pair were found near Cadboro Bay Road in Victoria, safe and sound … six months later. They were spotted by a boy collecting firewood who nearly shat himself at the sight of the camels. His father, struck with fear, referred to them as “monsters” in the papers. No one knows if they were reunited with the rest of the pack in the Lower Mainland.
On May 17, the twenty-one camels were put to work, packing goods over Pemberton Portage. Packers were pleased initially, but a week later, workers began to complain. “We believe these animals do not quite come up to the expectations of their wonders,” one worker stated.
By the end of June, the first camel train headed toward Lillooet to trek to the Cariboo goldfields. As they headed over Pavilion Mountain, one was kicked out of the train by a younger camel and fell down a precipice to his death. Twenty camels remained. Still, the papers continued to praise them for “answer[ing] very well as pack animals.” This would be the last positive comment published about the camels.
One year later, the camels would come to be despised. A judge’s horse had galloped into the forest upon seeing them, taking the judge with him. The camels gorged on residents’ clothing, pants, and soap bars. Only twelve camels remained, the camel train discontinued, and Laumeister was threatened with court actions and physical violence. However, a Washington newspaper suggested that the camels “became footsore, and their owners had to decide their investment was a non-paying one.”
So, what happened to eight of the camels? Photojournalist Don McLeod—not the Canadian goaltender—discovered a grave for eight camels near Lac La Hache. The headboard stated that the camels were caught in a blizzard, but it remained unconfirmed if all eight were buried below. There was at least one that didn’t make it to the grave. A contractor named John Morris went hunting in the Cariboo and shot what he thought was a bear—it was a camel. What did he do with him? Well, I’ll let a hotelkeeper explain:
“I have eaten many delicacies in my time, but for a never-to-be-forgotten dish, give me camel hump.”
Now, what happened to the other dozen camels?
One died on the banks near Cache Creek after years of dragging a plough on a driver’s ranch. One writer declared, “Mr. Walker probably had one of the worst combinations of plough animals imaginable.” In the Kamloops Museum and Archives, it was documented that Mr. Ogden had sold camel meat to the Hudson’s Bay Company. Mr. William Henry of the Bitterfoot Ferry, better known as “Blackfoot Bill,” had a camel. After he died in a mining accident, the camel was claimed by a Frenchman, then repurchased by Calbraith before it was sent to Manitoba to be slaughtered for meat. This camel did half of the Cross-Canada route! That left nine camels.
In a rural community between Vernon and Kamloops, Henry Ingram owned three of them. As farm animals, they were useless; as household pets, they were a man’s best friend. Eventually, he traded two of them for horses, and the pair were never seen again. The children in the Grande Prairie fancied riding the third camel who was on his last legs. In 1905, the camel leaned against a tree and died. Well, it’s about damn time that one of these camels died peacefully.
But, wait, aren’t there six still missing? Well, those have yet to be accounted for. They were probably eaten alive to celebrate Canada’s confederation. I don’t have proof, but there’s nothing disproving my claim either. Also, there’s no evidence that the camels hadn’t birth calves. So, the next time you find yourself between Vernon and Kamloops, take a look around. You might spot something with a hump on its back.