Camels had a short-lived career as pack animals during the Gold Rush.

Camels had a short-lived career as pack animals during the Gold Rush.

Haphazard History: The Dromedary Express

I came across much of this information in a 1989 Pioneer’s Progress supplement to the now defunct 100 Mile House Spectator newspaper.

I came across much of this information in a 1989 Pioneer’s Progress supplement to the now defunct 100 Mile House Spectator newspaper.

It covers a bit of interesting, yet not very well known local gold rush history.

If you ever visit Lillooet, Mile 0 of the historic Cariboo Wagon Road, the old timers there will refer to the old original bridge across the Fraser River as the Bridge of the 23 Camels.

The name dates back to the Gold Rush, 1862 when a hopeful entrepreneur named Frank Laumeister, along with a few friends who had money to invest, decided to cash in on the lucrative freight trade to the Cariboo Gold Fields.

Laumeister bought a herd of 23 Bactrian camels (two humps) in Arizona, and had them shipped up to Port Douglas (New Westminster) by steamer to Victoria, then by barge across the Strait of Georgia.

He paid $6,000. for the herd, and the shipping and feed costs were extra.

The idea was to use the camels in place of mules in a pack train. Each camel was supposed to be able to go six to 10 days without water, feed off the native grasses and scrub plants, and travel 50 to 70 kilometres a day with a 500-kilogram load.

That was nearly three times the weight and three times farther each day than a mule could manage.

Like many new ideas, the concept looked good on paper.

The operation began with great fanfare, and soon became known as the Dromedary Express. The May 29, 1862 edition of the Victoria Times-Colonist reported “They (the camels) are now acclimated, and will eat anything from a pair of pants to a bar of soap.”

The owners’ dream of huge profits soon came to an abrupt and unpopular end.

They failed to take into account the harsh terrain of the B.C. Interior and the aggressive temperament of their new beasts of burden.

The camels, which were well suited to softer desert sands soon tore up their feet on the rocky Cariboo paths.

Even after special little booties made of canvass and rawhide were made for their feet, the camels had a hard time.

In addition from the moment they arrived, the camels would attack anything they didn’t like, and it soon became apparent that they liked very little about the Cariboo.

They frequently kicked, bit or spit at anything that came near them, including mules, horses, oxen, customers, travellers and even their handlers.

Adding to the woes of the owners was the beasts’ offensive odour.

Apparently they smelled so foul that on the trail horses and mules would bolt their loads and take flight, sometimes falling off the narrow paths to their deaths.

It was said that if the wind was right, you could smell the Express coming for hours before it arrived.

There were other problems too.

In truth, the camels were slower and less efficient than a mule train, and they never carried more than 300 kilograms each.

Barely two years elapsed before the public outcry was sufficient enough that the government outlawed camels from the Cariboo Trail.

The business folded in 1864.

The animals were abandoned, and turned loose to fend for themselves and to roam in the wild countryside between Cache Creek and Williams Lake.

The poor beasts fared pretty well in the summers, but suffered badly during the cold winters, when many died.

A few camels managed to survive. Some were captured and kept as curiosities.

The last of the herd died on a farm in Grande Prairie, Alberta in 1905.

In 1870, proprietors of the 150 Mile House road house, Samuel Adler and Thomas Barry, bought a carcass of one of the surviving camels that had been shot by a hunter.

They offered the meat for sale, but even though it was freshly killed, it smelled so bad that no one would buy it.

It is also said that they tried to disguise the meat and serve it on the menu of the dining room, but that too proved to be spectacularly unsuccessful.

The Dromedary Express was a short-lived lesson in what can happen when entrepreneurship goes head to head with nature.