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Camels at Virginia City

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.

Images

Camel train
Camel train An illustration of a camel train. Camels were valued for their ability to go long periods without water, and carry immense loads. Source: Courtesy of the Nevada Historical Society. In Ronald James. “Camels.” Online Nevada Encyclopedia. Nevada Humanities, February 25, 2010. https://www.onlinenevada.org/articles/camels.
The annual International Camel Races
The annual International Camel Races The annual International Camel Races in Virginia City allegedly began as a spoof story written by the editor of The Territorial Enterprise in 1959. This was the same newspaper that Samuel Clemens got his start as Mark Twain in, telling tall tales himself. Source:

“55th Annual International Camel & Ostrich Races.” Kaitlin Godbey, September 4, 2014. TravelNevada, via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). https://www.flickr.com/photos/14458845@N07/15190354715.

Creator: Kaitlin Godbey
Salt marsh
Salt marsh A view across the Humboldt Salt marsh, one of the places in Nevada that supplied the salt needed to extract ore through the Washoe process. Camels carried salt from marshes like these to the Comstock Lode and Virginia City. Source:

“View Across the Humboldt Salt Marsh near Lovelock, Nevada.” Famartin (pseud.), May 28, 2012. Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0). https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2012-05-28_View_across_the_Humboldt_Salt_Marsh_near_Lovelock_in_Nevada.jpg.

Creator: Famartin (pseud.)
Imported camels
Imported camels Otto Esche, a San Franciscan merchant, imported Bactrian camels from Central Asia to sell at auction. Many of these died in transit; perhaps the camel in the picture predicted its fate. Those that survived went to Julius Bandmann, who trained them and sold them on to mining companies as beasts of burden. Source: In James A. Harvey III. “The History of the Army Camel Corps.” Army Sustainment, May–June 2016, online repr. U.S. Army, April 28, 2016. https://www.army.mil/article/166054/the_history_of_the_army_camel_corps.
Camel ban
Camel ban This newspaper from Carson City describes with relish that camels had been successfully banned from public highways by the state government in 1875, the year of publication, because they proved to be a nuisance by scaring horses and mules. Source:

“Mr. Carlson’s Bill for the Suppression of Camels and Dromedaries.” Carson Daily Appeal (Carson City, NV), January 22, 1875, page 2. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86076199/1875-01-22/ed-1/seq-2/.

Location

Metadata

Emily Moore, Northern Arizona University, “Camels at Virginia City,” Intermountain Histories, accessed May 20, 2024, https://www.intermountainhistories.org/items/show/526.