Harmon’s Histories: Camels once did duty as pack animals, to mules’ and whiskey lovers’ chagrin
By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current
As legend has it, the “Red Ghost” stood 30 feet tall and eluded capture many times in the Desert Southwest.
Some say a cowboy tried to rope the beast in the Arizona Territory in the 1880s, but it turned on him and nearly trampled the man and his horse to death.
One rumor told of the Red Ghost killing and eating a grizzly bear. Another claimed a man chased the beast, only to have it disappear before his eyes.
The thing is – the Red Ghost was real.
It was not, however, a ghost. It was a camel.
It seems the U.S. Army imported 75 camels, believing the dromedaries might be the perfect animal to carry military supplies to western outposts.
An old-timer, speaking with a newspaper reporter in Anaconda years later, explained the logic behind the decision: “Camels, like goats, will live on the roughest of food and sagebrush. They can easily make 30 to 50 miles per day and in a country where climate and other conditions are favorable.”
But he also knew that camels were only docile when kindly treated. “I remember seeing a driver prodding a camel with an iron gad. The beast seized him by the arm and gave him such a shaking as a dog would give a rat.”
The Army’s grand experiment failed, and eventually the camels were sold at auction. Well, most of them. A few were just released into the wild.
One of those feral camels, a red-haired one, roamed the area for years, eventually becoming fodder for tall tales.
One story told of miners spotting the beast and firing rifles at it. As it ran off, something fell from the camel’s back. On inspection the miners found a human skull on the ground. So began the legend of the Red Ghost.
Eventually, a farmer is said to have shot and killed the dromedary, when it got into his tomato patch.
The New York Sun heard the story and published quite an article, advancing the legend: “When the rancher went out to examine the dead beast, he found strips of rawhide wound and twisted all over his back, his shoulders, and even under his tail. Something, or someone, was once lashed onto the camel."
Another newspaper report, this one in an 1899 issue of the Anaconda Standard newspaper, recalled the experience of some packers who encountered a herd of camels on the Walla Walla trail.
“An entire pack load of breakable stuff was completely wrecked by the stampeding of his pack train when the horses spied the camels coming down the trail toward them. It was as easy to stop a blizzard as it was to head off a (stampeding pack) train that had been frightened by the camels.”
“A lot of whiskey destined for Missoula was scattered along the trail for a long distance on one occasion and the Missoula people, who then lived at Hell Gate, were compelled to drink water for a long time afterward.”
The era of the pack-camel in Montana was short. The beasts of burden performed well, but neither they nor, in fact, the horse or mule pack trains, could compete with the iron horses. The railroads changed the face of transportation entirely.
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org. His best-selling book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is available at harmonshistories.com.