Virginia City International Camel Races began as a practical joke

The Virginia City Camel Races are today one of Northern Nevada’s most popular special events, taken quite seriously by the competitors who come from Australia, Africa and Saudi Arabia.

It’s hard to believe it all started as a practical joke.

Nevadans have always loved a good hoax and one of the best was hatched in 1959 when Bob Richards, then editor of Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise newspaper, decided to print the results of camel races held in that town.

The fact that no such races were held did not deter him.

The article generated little local interest — folks in Virginia City were accustomed to Richards’ tall tales — but was noticed by editors at the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper, who passed on the race results to their readers.

The following year, when Richards announced the upcoming running of the “annual” camel races, the Chronicle decided to call his bluff. The newspaper hired a couple of camels and issued a race challenge.

Not to be outdone, the Phoenix Gazette and the Indio, California Chamber of Commerce accepted the challenge, and suddenly the fictitious race beame a reality.

Additional camels were provided by the San Francisco Zoo and a “ringer” was brought in to do the jockeying, namely director John Huston, who was in the area filming The Misfits, with Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe. Miraculously, Huston beat all comers and since then, Virginia City has continued to celebrate this unusual event during the first weekend following the Labor Day weekend in September.

In recent years, the event that began as a joke has attracted as many as 50,000 people to Virginia City for the races.

Ironically, when Richards cooked up his spoof, he was drawing from a real episode in Virginia City’s colorful past. In September 1861, two Virginia City men, Marius and Louis Chevalier, purchased nine bacterians (two-humped camels) to haul salt that was used in the process of refining silver.

At that time, Virginia City was the focus of an intensive silver and gold boom (in fact, one of the biggest in history) and any labor-saving device could be worth millions. The Chevaliers figured that camels would adapt well to the dry Nevada climate and would be cheaper than mules or horses.

The business was initially successful, and at one point the brothers commanded a fleet of more than two dozen camels. In 1864, Sam McLeneghan introduced his own 10-camel freight train using dromedaries, which are camels with one hump.

Business was good for a few years, but began to wane after several incidents during which the camels spooked and stampeded horses, who were not accustomed to their strange appearance, behavior and smell.

In 1875, the Nevada State Legislature passed a law prohibiting camels on public highways, which effectively closed down any camel freight business. Some of the camels were moved to other states, but many were turned loose in the desert. Wild herds were reported as late as the mid-1930s.

The camels for the modern Virginia City races are imported from the Wild Animal Training Center in Riverside, California. These camels are generally used in movies and on television and race only at the Virginia City event.

Each year, dozens of businesses, service clubs or individuals sponsor camels. The sponsors can either select a jockey, pick one from a waiting list, or call for a volunteer from the audience.

In past years, riders from Alice Springs, Australia — the only other place in the world to hold regular camel races — accepted a challenge from Virginia City to compete for a four-foot tall trophy called the International Camel Cup. They took the cup “Down Under” in 1987 and 1993.

The winner keeps the trophy until the next race, which alternates each year between America and Australia.

Races are 100-yard dashes on a straight dirt track (unlike the Australian races which are held on oval tracks with trained camels) and involve untrained camels. The result is that just finishing is the key to winning.

In addition to the camel racing, the event boasts bull and ostrich races. Participants in the latter ride in lightweight sulkies pull by the powerful flightless birds who may be even harder to control than the camels.

Spectators are invited to enjoy the races, walk the historic wooden sidewalks of Virginia City, or relax in any of the city’s many 19th century saloons and restaurants.

For more information, contact Arlington Group, 775-887-1294, or the Nevada Commission on Tourism, 401 North Carson Street, Carson City, NV. 1 (800) NEVADA-8