Hoover and His Camel

By Thomas F. Schwartz

Portrait of Herbert Hoover, 1898, Perth Australia.
Portrait of Herbert Hoover, 1898, Perth Australia.

One of Hoover’s fondest memories of being a student at Stanford University were the two summers he spent working with the United States Geological Survey in the Nevada High Sierra.  Most of the work required riding on horseback to navigate the rugged trails.  Hoover recalled: “In these long mountain rides over trails and through the brush, I arrived finally at the conclusion that a horse was one of the original mistakes of creation.”  Horses were too high off the ground, lacked protection against flies, needed frequent water stops, and not as sure-footed as mules.  Hoover’s dislike of horses was replaced with his use of another animal adapted to navigate desolate terrain: camels.  “He [camel] is even less successful than a horse,” Hoover stated.

George J. Bancroft, a fellow mining engineer, wrote a detailed account of Hoover’s use of camels in the Australian outback for his daughter that explains some of the reasons for Hoover’s opinion:

“In 1898 camels were much in use on the western Australia desert.

Of all the mean, ornery brutes used by man the ordinary ‘heathen camel’ is peculiar, which the same I am free to maintain, with apologies to Bret Hart.  The camels you see in zoos are of a refined and gentle breed.  They are known as ‘riding camels’ in western Australia, but even riding camels are worse than a mean Missouri mule.

Their one redeeming feature is that they can carry 300 lbs. per camel across 50 miles of hot desert without water.  A good mule can carry 200 lbs. 20 miles.  The camel travels 5 miles per hour and the mule 2 ½  miles.

So the Government imported work camels.  Mine managers and engineers bought riding camels.  The work camels were so unmanageable that the miners couldn’t use them, so then the Government imported Afghan camel drivers.  These men grew up with camels and knew how to handle them.  Even so, the Afghans’ bodies were more or less covered with scars from camel bites.

Herbert Hoover had a good riding camel and he often loaned it to me.  The first time he did so he told me the following story by way of educating me.

Hoover had ridden this camel north from Coolgardi to the Sons of Gwalia mine, where there was a good big camp with plenty of good water and feed for camels.

On his next trip he had to go to a mine east of the Sons of Gwalia.  He left Coolgardi on the Sons of Gwalia trail.  When he came to the forks in the trail the camel refused to take the eastern trail.  Hoover could pull his head around till his head faced his tail but he kept on going the Western trail.  Herbert tried the camel whip, which is a severe whip, but it did no good.  Then he got off and tried leading the camel but even with a ring in its nose the camel could soon wear a man out by hanging back.  He tries other expedients but none of them worked.

Time was getting on and water was 25 miles away.

As one last effort Hoover pulled off his black shirt and made a perfect blindfold for the camel, then he rode slowly along the Western trail for a way but gradually swung across the desert to the Eastern trail.  He kept the blindfold on the camel till he had gone about 12 miles.  By this time it was getting dark and it was hard to guide the blindfolded camel.  Herbert took off the blindfold and had no more trouble with his camel.  Maybe the camel smelled water on the night air or maybe he just surrendered to the superior stubbornness of man.

When Herbert got back to Coolgardi he had a very good leather blindfold made, which he loaned me with the camel.

I always put the blindfold on before we reached a fork in the trail and so I had no trouble with the camel.”

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