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The Rocky Mountain Camel

As I rolled through the expansive valleys east of Helena, weather-worn, hand-hewn cottonwood poles towered high into the sky here and there, part of the mechanical contraptions known as Beaverslides that speckle the wide-open Montana hayfields. Originally patented as the "Sunny Slope Slide Stacker," these horizontal 45-degree wooden implements were used by Montana ranchers starting around the turn of the century to stack their hay. They were also portable, allowing movement from one hayfield to another. Piles from the previous hay season were still stacked high beneath the slides, evidence of their continued use to this day.


Currently, I was on three-mile road approaching the southwestern side of Black Mountain in an attempt to make it over the continental divide on through to the living ghost town of Marysville, Montana. Snow cover was sparse down there among the fields, but I knew it would present an obstacle of some sort up ahead since it had been melting on and off, forming a heavy icy crust. The trail climbed to over 7000 feet in order to cross the divide, and it would be one of the highest passes I had attempted.


Along the way, I passed through quiet ranches, with cows and horses speckling the fields, along with old barns and haylofts standing resolute with their paint peeling, if there was any left at all. This brisk, arid part of the west remains scarcely populated, partially due to agricultural necessity. It takes a good amount of acreage to feed an animal through a harsh winter, let alone enough for an entire herd of horses or cattle, even moderately sized. Yet, as a pinnacle part of the American fabric, these enduring agricultural stewards put up with the winds and the blizzards to call the still wild land home for them and theirs. I was glad to get a glimpse of it and live among those same grand expanses, if only for a day.


In order to slide the hay up towards the top of the structure, a team of horses would pull on ropes and cables that ran through pulleys in order to raise the hay. The team would also be hitched to the hay rake to push the feedstuff onto the bottom of the Beaverslide.


The road before me had faded from rough pavement to a mix of hard frozen dirt, ice, and packed snowmelt. There were tracks ahead of me, ruts through the snow with ice bulging up in the center and sides. The snow had obviously been a good bit deeper when the storm hit in October. Throwing it in four-by-four, I continued on, crunching along as the weight of the truck camper came down on the turning tires. The grade steepened and narrowed, with trees here and there and rocks poking out haphazardly. My eyes bounced back and forth between my navigation display and the road ahead as the number indicating my elevation continued to steadily climb. My traction was decent, and the grade headed towards the divide wasn’t too steep at that point. As someone came around the bend ahead of me at 6,000 feet or so, my heart plunged as I saw that they were riding a snowmobile. I immediately knew that the road ahead of me was about to get a whole lot more interesting. 


Once I rounded the bend, I saw to my surprise that the snow didn’t get much deeper in the next few hundred yards, and the melted tire tracks ahead of me remained, meaning someone else had been up there since that storm, in likely deeper snow than was now present. Continuing on, I remained optimistic that I could traverse the last thousand feet to the divide, even if there had been that snowmobile. In the worst-case scenario, I knew I could use my tire chains to give me an extra boost of traction if needed, though I didn’t want to rely on that option.


A few yards further, and I had my answer. The crust increased in thickness like a deep-dish pizza, and as I tried to push the truck onwards, I immediately heard an audible crunch that was definitely more than just the tires. The undercarriage of the truck had settled down onto the snow. As I tried to continue forward, my tires broke loose and began to slip; that was where I would have to stop. I’d made it close, just like at Cooper Pass in Idaho a few weeks earlier. I was at 6800 feet, only a couple hundred below the peak. Wanting to give it a go and keep trying with chains, I had to remind myself that if I high-centered bad enough, I would be stuck up there until it all melted out. I didn’t think that would be long, but another quick storm could change all of that. Resigning myself to the fact that I had to get off the mountain, I began to figure out a spot to turn my rig around. 



Getting out, I took a glance around for a few moments before heading back down the path behind me. It was fairly open, brushy country, so trees wouldn’t prove to be an inhibition to my change of direction, but the actual slope of the ground could be. Since it was covered in snow, it was hard to make out where it dropped off and could put the camper off balance. Seeing no good spots, I decided to back the camper down further. Reversing down a mountain isn’t exactly my favorite thing in the world, but in this case, at least there were no large drop-offs and I had plenty of visibility above the snow cover.


I was able to keep my reverse speed in check with low gear as I headed down the hill, back over the snowy tracks I had laid. Taking it very slowly, I got out every few yards to ensure I was still going in the right direction since my mirrors only allowed me to see so much around the eight-foot wide camper. My eyes were locked into the task, darting back and forth from mirror to mirror, wanting to be absolutely sure I was remaining on track. After I had made it down around the next big bend, I finally saw an area that looked a little clearer and was also more or less level. I was able to point the camper into the spot and execute a change of direction with many spins of the steering wheel.


I rolled down back into the valley, haystacks dotting the scene like frizzled, faded gumdrops among the serene Montana countryside. Eager to complete my bypass with enough light left to explore Marysville, I headed closer and closer to Helena and then veered north right before I reached the capital city. I was wrapping around the southern end of Greenhorn Mountain, which helped form the pass that had just thwarted my plan A. I was now following US Highway 12 over MacDonald Pass. A roadside sign mentioned that the highway followed a route from the past called the Mullan Road and even talked of camels, so I knew I had to learn more.



The Mullan Road was a project orchestrated by Captain John Mullan in the beginning of the 1860s. He mapped the route himself in the mid-1850s over a period of years and then received funding and nearly 200 men to help him complete the 600+ mile path through the northwest in 1859. It would be the first such wagon road built across the northern rockies into the inland northwest, ending at Walla Walla, Washington. Specified to be 25 feet wide, Mullan took it a step further and cleared it to over double that in forested areas, so that snow could melt faster and deadfall would not often render the road completely impassable. The fact that the route was built over a period of only a couple years is remarkable in and of itself, not to mention the foreign desert dwellers that ambled along it only a few years later.


In the early 1850s, after the end of the Mexican-American War, it was apparent that there was room for improvement regarding the transportation of men and munitions across the American Southwest. A few men in the United States Army, including the infamous Jefferson Davis, later President of the Confederacy, got the wild idea to import a few dozen camels for use in the southwest hauling freight and munitions between distant army bases. After nearly five years, the project was approved by Congress, and the first animals landed a few miles south of Indianola, Texas, on Powder Point on May the 14th of 1856.


Part of this first shipment of animals had been a generous gift to the United States from the Viceroy of Egypt, and as a result, there was over half the allotted budget still remaining. They quickly sent for another larger shipment of animals, which brought the total to a few shy of 75. A small herd of animals stayed in Texas, bound for San Antonio, while the majority were in for a journey. Under the charge of Lieutenant Edward F. Beale, the animals went first to Albuquerque, then onto Arizona and California. About two years later, Lt. Beale reported that he had traveled over 4000 miles with the animals without incident. They had quickly proven themselves adept at carrying the heaviest of loads. At one point, Beale apparently piled over 1250 pounds on one of the poor animals while on the ground, but astonishingly, it was able to rise and lift well over half a ton. According to the History of British Columbia, the Bactrian camels imported there in the early 1860's could go six to ten days without water while traveling 30-40 miles per day and carrying loads in excess of four figures.


Beale kept charge of the animals until 1861, when the Civil War drew him to the east. His herd and other smaller ones ended up scattered across the southwest during the war, and like Beale, their few Arabian caretakers were sent back east as well, leaving the camels to mule skinners and bull whackers, who treated the animals very poorly in comparison. Some of the blonde beasts were captured by the Confederates when the Army pulled out of Texas and then turned loose or were taken to Mexico for the most part. Union forces recaptured a few in the east, but many ended up wild for a time.


The animals stationed further west in New Mexico, Arizona, and California were rounded up by 1864, and by order of General Edwin Burr Babbitt, they were sold to the highest bidder out in California. Apparently the army wanted to be rid of the creatures, perhaps because horses and mules nearly always grew ornery and stampeded at the smell of the creatures, let alone the sight, for some reason. They became hated across the west for scattering many a miners pack trail among the hills without warning.


Imaged created by author with Midjourney


From there, the animals were mostly purchased by miners looking to use them to haul ore and equipment, and they ended up in Nevada and Arizona. The first camels to enter what is now the state of Montana crossed the future border in 1865 as a herd of seven animals. By June of that year, the Montana Post newspaper of Virginia City, Montana, published an article announcing the arrival of the travelled critters, though the news of their arrival likely spread quite quickly without words in print anyway.


The animals then headed to the modern capital of Helena to begin packing freight out to the various mining camps around western Montana, including Bear Gulch, Gold Creek, and Deer Lodge. Once their goods were unloaded, the animals were re-packed with gold dust, and it is said that the first gold shipment from the claim that made Alder Gulch and Virginia City famous and helped to fund many improvements to Harvard was carried by this hardy herd. After about six months of this local work in Montana, the beasts began packing freight on the Walla Walla Trail, which took them all the way to western Washington State.


Before this longer route to the Pacific Northwest began, Mr. Charles W. Cannon remarked while in downtown Helena, "They used to unload in front of the store of Gaston & Simpson, at the upper end of Main Street in Helena, back in '66. They used to carry tremendous loads, too. They would be loaded with sacks of flour until you couldn't see anything of the animals except their heads. They would carry all you could pile on them and never show that the pack was any load for them at all. They would go up and over the mountains in the roughest and steepest places and never refuse to keep moving along in their slow, deliberate way."


When the camels were redirected to head to Walla Walla, they began their travels on the freshly completed Mullan Road. This was likely a slightly easier route than the primitive mining trails that had occupied the camel's treks before, though they may have been loaded even heavier than those trips described leaving Helena, in order to maximize profits on the long route. Other camels that had worked in the Nevada and Arizona mines for a time were eventually turned loose on the plains for the most part, a result of the animal's propensity to stir up trouble on the trail with horses and mules.


After this history on the side of the highway, I continued on to Marysville Road, which led up the steep grade whipping through the sagebrush-studded canyon and on to the little ghost town that was still hanging on by a thread. There I would see more of Montana's past and reflect upon my own family history, since my great-grandfather Archie was born in that very place.











Sources:


Lewis, William S., and Bill Thayer. “The Camel Pack Trains in the Mining Camps of the West .” Washington Historical Quarterly , vol. 19, no. 4, Oct. 1928, pp. 271–284,





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Howdy, thanks for dropping by! 

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