What’s with the camels?

Here be camels

On the long weekend I had the opportunity to get out of the city on a road trip through the Fraser Valley. We did a loop driving east from Vancouver through places like Chilliwack and Hope, with many small towns in between, and came back through Pemberton, Squamish and Whistler. I loved getting out of the city to see the mountains and valley we live on the edge of, without a city in the way. My gosh, it’s HUGE!

One of the places I’m glad we made a rest stop in was the town of Lillooet. It led to a memorable encounter with an elderly gentleman named Bill Fowler, and revealed an interesting piece of local history I’d previously been unaware of.

As my friend and I were driving through town we spotted a camel sign at the side of the road, right next to a garage with a sign reading “Camel Repairs”. We were both puzzled about the camel references and stopped to take pictures. We were soon chatting with Bill Fowler, owner of the property and (as we quickly discovered) local historian, storyteller and tool enthusiast. He asked if we’d like to see his camel bones and took us into his garage of many odds, ends and treasures to view them. Most people may already know the story of the twenty-three Lillooet camels, but not being from BC I’d never heard it.

Innovative Lillooet resident John Callbreath experimented with camels as pack animals, hoping to make an improvement over the oft-stubborn mule. In 1862 he bought 23 camels in San Fransisco for $300, and shipped them to Lillooet to work in the Gold Rush. While efficient they were, their tender feet, bad tempers and foul odour led to the scheme’s demise. While the camels were a dismal failure, they nonetheless left a strong impression on townsfolk, as evidenced by their memorial, Lillooet’s Bridge of 23 Camels.

Abandoned by their owner the animals were left to wander the wilderness to their eventual deaths. The discovery of the bones of one of these camels was made accidentally by Bill during a work-related excavation, and he’s had them displayed on his wall ever since.

Based on the reaction of his wife upon finding us in the garage, I don’t think we were the only passing strangers he’s shown them to. I’m pretty sure he’s used the old bones as a conversation starter to segue into his real passion of talking about the antique tool collection taking up most of the space. I’d be curious to know how many people he’s hijacked as a captive audience…. Anyway, it was an entertaining encounter and I recommend keeping an eye out for the sign of the camel the next time you pass through Lillooet.

1 Comment so far

  1. Jonathon Narvey (unregistered) on May 25th, 2006 @ 10:51 pm

    What an excellent story! If I’m not mistaken, the US army in the Southwest experimented with a cavalry regiment mounted on camels brought in around the same period. They were rendered obsolete with the advent of modern warfare and the automobile. It’s unfortunate that camels never really caught on in North America. They really are cool-looking animals (although I’d have to agree with the Lillooet residents who couldn’t stand their smell. It’s not pleasant).

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