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Gold Fever in BC: Camels in the Cariboo

March 4, 2015

This post is the first installment in a 3-part series about the Gold Rush era in the Fraser River basin.

It’s hard to overestimate the impact of the Fraser River and Cariboo gold rushes on the history of British Columbia and Canada. Considering both events happened in the Fraser River basin, the staff and volunteers here at the Fraser River Discovery Centre always have a touch of gold fever! Most history buffs are already familiar with some of the key stories from this era, such as the creation of the colony of British Columbia, and the naming of New Westminster as its first capital. But there are also many fascinating, lesser-known stories of gold rush-era B.C. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing some of our favourites with you. Today: the true story of camels in the Cariboo.

As outlandish as it sounds, Bactrian camels once trod the famous Cariboo Road during the 1860s. The Road was the brainchild of James Douglas, first Governor of the Colony of British Columbia.

The route of the Cariboo Road (in red).

The route of the Cariboo Road (in red).

In 1861, gold was discovered in the Cariboo Mountains, launching the start of a second gold rush in the Fraser River basin in less than 5 years. The discovery attracted thousands of miners to the remote area; some had already been involved in the earlier Fraser Canyon Gold Rush, and others traveled from around the world in hopes of striking it rich. The route through the treacherous terrain of interior B.C. was slow and dangerous for people and their valuable cargo. The creation of the Cariboo Road from Yale to Barkerville provided a relatively safer, faster route to the Cariboo Gold Fields. Costing about $1.25 million to build, the Road was one of Governor Douglas’s most costly ventures. However, approximately $6.5 million worth of gold was transported along the road, so some might argue it was a good investment!

Although the Cariboo Road made travelling easier, miners still looked for ways they could decrease their journey times, and thereby increase their potential profits. In 1862, a man called Frank Laumeister had a curious idea: replace

The Cariboo Road circa 1867, photo by Frederick Dally.

The Cariboo Road circa 1867, photo by Frederick Dally.

pack mules and stage coaches with Bactrian camels, the trusted steed of many Asian cultures since ancient times. Camels can carry loads of up to 600 pounds, about twice as much as the mules traditionally used by gold miners. Doubling the amount of gold and supplies that could be transported to and from the Cariboo had obvious advantages. In early March 1862, Laumeister and his associates purchased 23 camels from a San Francisco merchant ( the animals had probably been associated with the short-lived U.S. Camel Corps). The dromedaries were brought to Victoria in April via steamship, and after a few weeks were transported by barge to New Westminster.

Although the idea of these shaggy, two-humped beasts plodding up and down the Fraser carrying prospectors, supplies,

A Cariboo camel, via Wikimedia Commons.

A Cariboo camel, via Wikimedia Commons.

and gold on their backs might sound strange (if not downright comical), there was actually sound logic behind the idea. Like all camels, Bactrians can endure long periods of travel and harsh conditions without water, which gave them an advantage over horses and mules on the long journey to the Cariboo. Moreover, because this particular species comes from the rocky deserts of Central Asia, they could withstand both hot summers and bitterly cold winters.

Alas, the Cariboo camel experiment ultimately failed for several reasons. Firstly, horses were prone to rearing or bolting in fear upon encountering the foreign beasts, leaving riders and cargo stranded in the chaos. Camels also had an inconvenient habit of eating supplies such as clothing and bars of soap. Lastly, even the tough feet of Bactrian camels were no match for the harsh terrain of the Cariboo Road; the creatures suffered so many cuts and sores that canvas shoes had to be made for them! Perhaps the final nail in the coffin for the project came from personal bias; the famous dispenser of justice B.C. Supreme Court Judge Matthew Begbie reportedly despised the Cariboo camels after one bolted off into the wilderness, carrying him unceremoniously with it!

In 1863, just one year after they arrived, Laumeister was forced to retire his camel trains. The fate of these once-infamous dromedaries is rather mysterious. Some were sold privately as exotic pets or ranch animals, while others seem to have escaped into the wild. Sightings were reported until as late as 1910.

Although trains of camels and hopeful miners no longer roam the Fraser River basin as they once did, their strange and surprising stories still remain.

Want to learn more about the Fraser River during the Gold Rush? Stay tuned for more blog posts in this series and register for our Gold Fever! event on Saturday, March 21 at the Fraser River Discovery Centre.

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