Though camels were well adapted to the harsh conditions of little water and extreme temperatures that prevail in the American West, they never became common beasts of burden because they frightened the ubiquitous horses and mules. The advent of railroads also made them obsolete for improving supply lines.
As an instrumental wagon route across the Rocky Mountains, the Mullan Road carried much of the traffic between Fort Benton in what is now Montana to Fort Walla Walla in present-day Washington. With the discovery of placer and quartz mines in places such as Gold Creek, Virginia City, Bear Gulch, and Deer Lodge in Montana from 1862 to 1864, population and the demand for supplies boomed. Along this route plodded horses, mules, and also camels.
The first arrived in Montana in 1865. Some had been bought from Nevada salt delivery trains; others had been acquired from the scattered stock of the US government’s short-lived Camel Corps. Still others may have come from the efforts of businessman Frank Laumeister to employ them in the British Columbia Cariboo Mining Company. These camels carried everything from mail to flour to nail kegs to gold dust, and they worked the routes between mining camps in the west and south of Montana territory before they began plying the Mullan Road across the Rockies. These exotic creatures made for memorable stories, including one in which a hunter shot one down thinking it was a moose, and had to surrender to the camel’s owner his cash, gun, ammunition, watch, and his deed to a claim in Ophir. Though both the camel’s owner and the Montana Post article printing the story ridiculed this hunter for being ignorant of camels, quotidian camel sightings did not remain a feature of western Montana life for long. A settler who moved to the Helena area at the age of nine in 1867 reported that by then camel trains were already the subject of stories only and not firsthand experience.
A major obstacle against widespread adoption of camels, despite their load carrying capacity and remarkable endurance, was that mules and horses could not stand them. The smell and sight of camels instigated many commotions, including one that deprived Missoulans of their Fourth of July shipment of liquor. One Montana settler even claimed he won a bet based on horses’ fear of camels.
Furthermore, camels had to compete not only with other, more common beasts of burden, but also with the railroads advancing across the continent. The establishment of transcontinental rail systems shaped the development of transport, trade, and settlement away from the highway of the Mullan Road that camels traveled and, eventually, away from the need for camels at all. While the 1869 track connection did not pass directly through Montana, merchants and settlers and territorial governments pioneered new southerly transportation routes to link up with the transcontinental railway. Given the opposition of many muleteers and horse handlers, it is not surprising camels were not transplanted to these new trails. Then, 1883 saw the completion of Montana’s own Northern Pacific Railroad, reducing the necessity of the Mullan Road and the camels that plied it. These Montanan camels soon faded into the stuff of legend and colorful history.