For a few days last week, Bill Fowler thought he was holding a one-of-a-kind piece of British Columbia history in his hands.
Fowler was convinced he had the skull of one of the original 23 camels that came through Lillooet 150 years ago during the Cariboo Gold Rush.
The remarkably well-preserved skull was found three weeks ago by Lloyd McNary near his son Randy McNary’s Roshard Road home. McNary spotted the skull among leaves, brush and soil in a field.
Fowler, 94, is a noted local collector of relics and memorabilia, so he says it was natural for McNary to give him the skull.
“He gave it to me, then he changed his mind a bit and now he says it’s for both of us,” Fowler told the News of their decision to maintain joint custody of the skull.
“It’s the only thing we’ve got in Lillooet that represents the camels,” said Fowler, hefting the toothy skull. He believed that the large size of the teeth and location of the eye sockets proved the skull belonged to one of the 23 camels.
Unfortunately for Bill and local history buffs, the skull is a horse’s skull. When the News sent photos of the bones to the Laboratory of Archaeology at UBC’s Department of Anthropology, all the experts there agreed it is a horse’s skull.
One department member replied, “It’s a horse…teeth are wrong and it has a nasal bone not on the camel…funny story though. I wish it was a camel. I heard a story years ago that a camel skull WAS dug up in a construction site in the Lillooet area.”
That would support Fowler’s memory that Doug and Gavin Arthur, who grew up here in the 1930s and 1940s, recalled hearing stories from oldtimers about two camels living in East Lillooet.
Fowler told the News camels can live to their 40s, so it’s conceivable the two East Lillooet camels died around the turn of the 20th century.
The camels arrived in Lillooet in June of 1862.
According to Wikipedia, they were purchased for $300 a head by Lillooet resident John Calbraith, who represented businessman, Frank Laumeister. They planned to use the animals on the Cariboo Road to carry goods from Lillooet to Alexandria, near Quesnel.
At first, the camels did well. They could pack 500 to 600 pounds – twice the load mules could carry - and they foraged off the land. However, their tender feet were torn to ribbons by the harsh conditions of the Cariboo Road and canvas boots had to be made for them.
After the first camel train left Lillooet for Alexandria at the end of June 1862, newspapers reported one camel died when it fell off a cliff into Pavilion Creek. Stagecoach horses were terrified by the sight of the camels and bolted when encountering them on the road. When it came face-to-face with a camel train, Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie’s horse raced off into the bush, with the helpless Begbie clinging to the saddle.
By May of 1863, the surviving camels were back in Lillooet. After threats of legal action from frustrated stagecoach drivers, Laumeister retired his camel train. What happened to the remaining camels became the stuff of debate and legend. Several were taken in at ranches as exotic pets or working stock, while another was mistaken for a grizzly bear and shot by a miner. Unconfirmed camel sightings were reported all over the interior in the following decades.
The last known surviving camel was named “The Lady” and lived at a ranch near Westwold, formerly Grand Prairie. She died between 1896 and1905.
Too bad, Bill, but at least Lillooet still has the Bridge of the 23 Camels, Camelsfoot Mountain, the “Camel Barn” and the Apricot Tsaqwem Festival’s camel race for the John C. Calbraith Memorial Trophy.