23 Camels in British Columbia

On March 1, 1862, a modest ad appeared in the Daily British Colonist. This Victoria-based periodical of note represented and serviced the nascent Colony of Vancouver Island, the nascent Colony of British Columbia, and indeed, much of the vast landscape we now call Western Canada. It read simply:

   To Packers.
   Twenty-five camels for 
   sale. Apply to
   Henry Walton.
   General Agency Office,
   Commercial st near Yates street.

The advertisement ran alongside others offering pack mules and stage horses. Cariboo outfitters, druggists and clothiers, hotels and saloons offered their wares and services. Ads hawked coal-oil lamps, leather boots, and ‘Fine Tooth Brushes’. There were British, French, and American dry goods offered at ‘San Francisco prices’, and ads recruiting ‘sober’ young men to venture into the wild interior of British Columbia in search of gold offset the ads for supplies. There were ads for fresh ground Java Coffee, in all its native purity, Baltic shirts, and all manner of hardware, groceries, and liquor.

And lost in it all, an unassuming ad for twenty-five camels.

Two weeks later the same periodical reported that a Mr John C. Calbreath of Lillooet purchased the camels for $300 a head, and that he would put them to work packing supplies from Lillooet to the Cariboo gold fields.

It was not without precedent, employing camels to pack supplies in the wild west. Indeed, the US Army had, by all accounts, quite successfully put the animals to work in the deserts of California and Arizona. But the success was short lived because the quartermaster responsible for the care and dispatch of the beasts abandoned the army to go fight for the Confederacy at the outbreak of the American Civil War, and thus, the Army was forced to disband the essentially stillborn US Army Camel Corps.

The camels we are interested in arrived in Victoria by steamship on April 15, 1862. They were Bactrian camels, the ones with two humps. Fueled by editorials in our favourite periodical, their arrival launched quite the local buzz. In the inimitable, piss-taking style of all Victorian newspapers, the Colonist suggested that next year would see the employment of trained whales set to haul freight and passengers to remote coastal locations via stowage in their bellies a la Jonah. Almost immediately after arriving in Victoria there was a confrontation between a slack-jawed looky-loo, and a female camel and her newly born calf. The pair escaped and fled, and nobody saw them again until late that fall near Cadboro Bay.

Despite the growing local infamy, John Calbreath and his business cohorts moved forward with their plans. The remaining 23 camels were moved by barge to New Westminster, then on to Port Douglas at the head of Harrison Lake. Here began the Douglas Road, or Lakes Route, a combination pack trail and water route which used Lillooet, Anderson, and Seton Lakes and long portages to get men and supplies from the coast to the interior. Originally charted by an HBC employee in 1846, more than 30,000 men had since traversed the route. It would end up abandoned not ten years later after the opening of the shorter and easier Cariboo Wagon Road via the Fraser Canyon.

After a 2 or 3 week journey, the camels finally arrived in Lillooet in June. The inaugural camel train departed for the Cariboo gold fields that same month. Initial accounts of the beasts suggested they performed well. They were naturally able to withstand temperature extremes. Each camel could haul two to three times the weight of a mule. They could travel far distances without water, and they managed to browse successfully on the native plants and shrubs which covered the dry interior landscape.

But difficulties soon appeared. The camels took to browsing upon jackets, hats, and tent canvas as well as the local flora. Their odour was said to be repugnant, second only to their temperament. And their soft feet, conditioned to the sand of the Gobi Desert, the natural environment from whence they came, were not suited to the rocky and treacherous terrain of British Columbia. The camel’s feet would get shredded and sore, despite the addition of makeshift canvas and rawhide booties. There were reports of camels who fell down steep embankments, and who succumbed to the injuries on their feet.

Most often though, the problems arose when the camel train met other travellers on the wagon trail. The unfamiliar camels terrified mules and horses. Even the best trained of draft animals would rear up, bolt, and flee on sight and smell of the beasts. Calbreath and his point man Frank Laumeister soon became the recipients of legal actions and had to face claims of lost and damaged pack animals and goods. Still, despite the setbacks, the camels finished out the season, and that autumn the Colonist reported that 12 remaining camels were in Quesnel forks to overwinter.

In May of 1863, the camels were back in Lillooet and set to embark on their second season. It proved to be short-lived as exasperated stagecoach pilots immediately decried the camels return and threatened more legal action. Things came to a head when a Colonial magistrate named Matthew Begbie encountered the camel train. His horse bucked and stampeded into the wilderness with him still mounted upon it. Begbie returned to Victoria and was instrumental in outlawing any present or future camel trains. Calbreath and Laumeister could tell which way the wind was blowing so they retired the camel train voluntarily before the law was enacted. It is lost to time whether or not they ever made any money with the venture.

There is much speculation and conjecture about the ultimate fate of the camels. They were unceremoniously set free into the wilderness according to several sources. For years after there were anecdotes, all unconfirmed, that miners and ranchers would encounter the camels by happenstance. The camels were sent to area ranches, either as pets or draft animals, according to others. There is a confirmed account that one camel was shot after inexplicably being confused for a grizzly bear. The shooter, one John Morris, was forevermore known as ‘Grizzly’ Morris. The camel meat was supposedly sold as a dinner special at a hotel restaurant near Beaver Lake.

Another camel’s fate can be confirmed. “The Lady” as she was known, was shipped to a ranch near present-day Westwold. There she lived out her life and died of natural causes sometime between 1895 and 1905. The Lady also provided us with the only known surviving photographic evidence that camels ever did come to British Columbia. The man holding the rope is W.H. Smith, owner of the ranch where she retired. The man on her back is Adam Heffley, one of the original cohorts who brought the camels to BC.

Other than the curious story, there is not much of a legacy remaining of the camels’ time here. A chain of mountains in the hard country they formerly traversed is named the Camelsfoot Range in their honour. And in Lillooet there is a modern highway bridge over the Fraser River. This is not where the story started, but certainly upon where it was centred. The bridge’s name, as chosen by an open contest, fittingly, became The Bridge of the 23 Camels.

A picture of 'The Lady', one of the camels brought to British Columbia.

[Notes: the newspaper image is a screenshot from the March 1, 1862 edition of the British Colonist, courtesy of the digitized archives. The camel image is item A-00347, courtesy of the BC Archives.]


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