Western Trips

Western Trips

Monday, May 26, 2014

Historic Camel Barns / Old Benicia Arsenal / California

The Camel Barns at the Old Benicia California Arsenal

A site filled with plenty of history can be found in the Northern California town of Benicia. The town of Benicia was named for the General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo's wife, Francisca Benicia Carillo de Vallejo. The site of Benicia also served as California's third state capital. When you visit the San Francisco Bay Area this is a stop you may want to add to your vacation planner.

benicia camel barns
Camel Barn, Benicia Arsenal CA
If you visit Benicia you will want to stop at the old Benicia Arsenal which at one time during the 1800's boarded camels which were a part of a U.S. Government experiment with the Army just prior to the Civil War.

 The arsenal on 252 acres acquired in 1847 served as a large U.S. military reservation first occupied in 1849. The arsenal was located just east of the Benicia city limits. The Camel Barns which were built in 1855 can still be seen at the old Benicia Arsenal whose grounds now house the Benicia Historical Museum in Benicia California.

Benicia is located northeast of San Francisco along Suisun Bay. Benicia is about a 35 mile drive from San Francisco and shorter if you're coming from the East Bay area. The directions to the old Benicia Arsenal and to the Benicia Historical Museum is as follows: 

From San Francisco take I-80 over Carquinez Bridge. Take I-780 East to East 5th Street exit, turn right, then left on Military East. At fork, keep left on Adams to Park Road up the hill and under freeway. Follow Camel Barn signs on the right.

benicia arsenal california
Camel Barn Museum Bldg.
Traveling from Sacramento to the east take I-80 to I-680 to I-780 split. Take the I-780 fork. Take first exit, East 5th Street, turn left, then left on Military East. At fork, keep left on Adams to Park Road up the hill and under freeway. Follow Camel Barn signs on the right.

Below is a brief description of the governments experiment with camels through America's Southwest. 

Why Camels? / The Experiments of Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis fought in the Mexican American War. He was aware about the problems of military and civilian communication and travel in desert regions. When the war ended and the southwest was taken over from Mexico the U.S. military would need to travel throughout the arid southwest not to mention future railroad survey crews. Water can be a scarce commodity in the southwest.

How about camels? Camels of course have the ability to travel without water for long periods. When water is available, a camel can drink 53 gallons of water in about three minutes. It's body can also withstand changes in body temperature and water consumption that would lead to death in many other animals.

benicia california things to do
Benicia Historical Museum
Two Historic Trips to the Mediterranean

In 1855, and with a budget of $30,000, Jefferson Davis, Secretary of War, sent the U.S.S. Supply on a voyage to the Mediterranean for the purpose of bringing camels back to the U.S. The vessel made a second trip to the Middle East in 1856.for the same purpose. The destination of both boatloads of camels was Indianola on the Texas coast southeast of San Antonio.

Historic Camel Treks Across the Southwest 

In 1857 Lt. Edward Fitzgerald Beale was directed to use seventy of the camels in a survey for a wagon road from Fort Defiance, New Mexico, across the thirty-fifth parallel to the Colorado River. This trail closely follows today's Interstate 40. After this survey, the camel drive continued to Fort Tejon California.

After reaching Fort Tejon, Lt. Beale decided that the camels' performance far exceeded that of the horses and mules for desert transportation, but were not compatible with soldiers.The demise of the camels as permanent transportation sources in the Southwest obviously had absolutely nothing to do with their ability. As Beale noted, in many ways they were superior to the horse in desert conditions. The problem was simply that they smelled horrible, scared the horses, and were hated by handlers accustomed to the more easily handled mule.

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A few good books regarding the history of the Benicia Arsenal include, History of Benicia Arsenal January 1851-December 1962 by author Josephine W. Cowell. Also, Great Expectations, the Story of Benicia California by Richard Dillon.

camel seat
Camel seat exhibit at Benicia Historical Museum
Enjoy Camel Treks and Historic Reenactments and Exhibits in Southwest Texas

The Texas Camel Corps guides camel treks through the Big Bend region of Texas. Camel trekking is like backpacking, only without having to carry anything. When you tire of riding, you can walk.

Led by Texas Camel Corps owner Doug Baum, participants must be able to walk 5-7 miles per day and provide their own sleeping bag, water container, small duffel bag or backpack and change of clothes. Camels, all other camping gear, and meals are provided. The location is Gearhart Ranch, Scenic Fort Davis Loop, Fort Davis, Texas.

(Article and photos copyright 2014 Western Trips)

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