Camels traversed to and from Virginia City carrying salt to the mines to process gold and silver ore. They have lingered in contemporary Virginia City life in the form of the International Camel Races thanks to journalistic playfulness in the tradition of Mark Twain.
In Virginia City, camels arrived in 1865 to convey salt. Nevada, famed for its Comstock lode and peppered with mining towns such as Virginia City, derived much of its wealth and population from ore deposits. However, translating these deposits into a livelihood required processing the raw ore. The Washoe process, developed in the 1860s by Comstock millmen, involved heating and grinding ore in an iron vessel along with mercury and a solution of salt. Thus, the silver rush required a salt rush as well.
Camels helped supply the need, bringing salt across the desert lands from the Walker River salt marsh district all the way to Virginia City. Otto Esche, a commission merchant who imported hemp as well as humped beasts from Central Asia, supplied some of these camels, hoping to install them as useful contributions to the American West. The auction intended to raffle these camels off, however, flopped, and Julius Bandmann, the agent for Esche’s commission, bought all thirteen Bactrians. He then sold them to Nevadan mining companies in need of salt transporters. Another entrepreneur, Samuel McLeneghan, purchased camels from the government when they auctioned the remains of their defunct US Camel Corps, an experiment in using dromedaries as military pack animals, in 1864. Marius Chevalier, a Frenchman, also supplied salt-packing Nevada camels.
By the end of the century, the cyanide reduction process replaced salt amalgamation for ore processing. The use of camels in Nevada, though, had already declined. Camels frightened horses and mules, much more ubiquitous than they and much more familiar to the settlers and miners. Camels caused such a nuisance with their disturbance of other, more common steeds that the Nevada state government passed a law prohibiting camels from public highways in 1875. This law remains on the books today.
Despite this ban, Virginia City engages in an annual sanctioned public appearance of camels in the form of their International Camel Races. According to popular legend, a spoof article written in 1959 by Robert Richards, the editor of the local paper The Territorial Enterprise, claiming that his city held camel races, fooled the editor of The San Francisco Chronicle, who reprinted it. Realizing he’d been hoodwinked, he challenged Virginia City to actually hold a camel race and offered to send a team to compete. The Hollywood director John Huston, who was filming The Misfits in northern Nevada at the time, came down to win this first race.
The journalistic jocularity of this saga holds well with The Territorial Enterprise’s fame as the proving ground for the young Samuel Clemens, who first wrote under the name of Mark Twain at this newspaper. Twain similarly fabricated stories and appreciated tall tales such as the ones surrounding the origin of Virginia City’s annual Labor Day camel racing tradition.