Tahoe Nugget #190:
Virginia City Camel Races
September 11, 2010
Yesterday I got my first chance to attend Virginia City's world famous international Camel Races. It was great fun watching the various competitions and observing families enjoying themselves
on a beautiful Friday afternoon.
Welcoming tent for camel races.
In addition to the camel racing, there was ostrich racing (both bareback and chariot), a first time zebra race, and emu and chicken
herding for the kids. The camel and ostrich jockeys sign a waiver, but carry their medical cards in their back-right pockets in case
they get knocked out. There have been serious injuries in the past, but I only saw one treatable injury when a woman fell off an
ostrich after crossing the finish line and hurt her arm. I actually caught that on one of my videos.
Zebras are very skittish and challenging to train.
Competitors (the oldest was 68 years old) were sponsored by local businesses, including regional hospitals and newspapers. One
race consisted of three print journalists, representing the Reno Evening Gazette Journal, Carson City Appeal, and the Virginia City Comstock Chronicle.
I observed only one treatable injury.
In addition to 8 still photos, I also have included You Tube links to four short videos that I shot with my new Sony video camera.
It was the first time that I had a chance to use the video cam, but apart from the poor sound quality, I'm very happy with this hi-definition unit.
This is a rare albino camel getting a walk before the first heat.
The Virginia City International Camel Races have been going on for more than 50 years, but Nevada's relationship with camels is
older than that. In the nineteenth century, several methods for transporting mail were tried, but perhaps the strangest experiment of
all occurred in 1855, when U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis insisted on the use of camels. Davis managed to convince
Congress that the dromedary, so accustomed to traveling for days without water, was perfect for the arid Nevada landscape.
Jefferson also felt that the camels could be useful for military and mining purposes.
This woman is no rookie to camel racing and it shows.
Congress funded a small naval expedition which was quickly dispatched to the Arab nations along the Mediterranean. After eight
months, this naval "Noah's Ark" returned with 78 camels and the U.S. Army's one and only Camel Corps was formed.
Unfortunately, unforeseen problems kept cropping up with these beasts of burden. Horse and mules always stampeded at the sight
and smell of the large alien creatures. The feisty camels attacked pedestrians with nasty bites and chewed the laundry off resident's
wash lines. In Virginia City, the strange camel trains were only allowed to pass through town at night. Nevadans hated the
troublesome beasts. In Lyon County, if you let your camel stray, they threw you in jail for 30 days.
The race between the newspaper journalists was very tight.
As it turned out, the camel project was a failure. The sharp rocks of the Great Basin cut their feet and despite special leather boots
made to protect them, the stubborn camels refused to cooperate. With the onset of the Civil War, official interest in the project
waned and the Camel Corps disbanded in 1863. Thirty-five camels were taken to Benicia, California, where they were auctioned
off to Samuel McLeneghan, who bought them for $1,495. He sent some to his Sonoma ranch and sold some to Virginia City
businessmen to haul salt to the isolated silver mining towns of Austin and Eureka, Nevada.
The cub reporter from the Reno Evening Gazette Journal won by a nose.
On his way to Virginia City with ten camels in 1864, McLeneghan stopped in Sacramento and staged a "Dromedary Race" in the
city's Agriculture Park. Some of the camels were recruited into circus acts; others were used by private freight-hauling and road
construction outfits. Eventually, many of the poor beasts were abandoned in the desert, where some survived for years. Angry
Wells Fargo stagecoach drivers complained of camels all the way from Lake Tahoe to Ely. Their teams panicked at every
encounter with the strange, humped creatures. Even 30 years later, some wide-eyed prospector would stride into a Comstock
saloon, belly up to the bar and tell the bartender of the bizarre "mirage" he had seen.
After the races camel rides are offered for five dollars.
You Tube Links:
Video #1: Camel Racing
Video #2: Kids herding Emus
Video #3: Ostrich racing bareback
Video #4: Ostrich chariot race