Every year when the Virginia City Camel Races roll around, I usually encounter a raft of statements that Bob Richards was the father of the Camel Races.
My response is always the same, that there was no actual Camel Race in Virginia City until 1960. Although Bob was a gifted editor of the Territorial Enterprise, whether his fictional story of a faux Camel Race in 1959 was the spark that triggered the real Camel Races is a moot point.
To stage the real race required live camels, cash, celebrities and vast communication. None of these elements were present in Virginia City at that time. Actually, if it had not been for Charles Mapes, Bill Harrah, John Huston and Billy Pearson, it is doubtful that the initial race would have ever occurred. Basically, the Races were a Reno promotion, while Virginia City’s major contribution was to provide the venue for the event.
During the summer of 1960, the big story locally was the start of filming of The Misfits motion picture. It was a gathering of superstars the likes of which northern Nevada had never seen and has not seen since. Headlined by Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, it was billed as the most expensive black and white film ever produced up to that time. The choice of a black and white treatment in an era when Technicolor reigned supreme was a mutual decision on the part of producer Frank Taylor, writer Arthur Miller, and director John Huston. They all felt that the sometimes gritty story could best be told in graphic black and white. During the prolonged “shoot”, which took the entire summer of ‘60, there were many fits and starts primarily due to Monroe’s several absences.
During a time when the entire production was shut down, one of the most long-lasting special events in northern Nevada was hatched by Huston and his good friend Billy Pearson, a professional jockey. Huston, who is known for his wild and whacky ways, challenged his pal Pearson to a real camel race in the mountain hamlet. In addition to frequent visits to Reno during the filming of the “Misfits”, Pearson was also a business partner of Huston’s in an art gallery in San Francisco. Noted dean of columnists Herb Caen was intrigued by characters like Huston and Pearson and often mentioned them in his column. When Huston and Pearson traipsed around the Mapes Hotel Casino they were often referred to as “Mutt & Jeff”, because at 6 foot 4 inches Huston was almost a foot and a half taller.
The idea was broached to hotel owner Charles Mapes, who agreed to pay for the four-footed beasts of burden and to provide prize money and trophies for the entrants. The event gathered momentum when the San Francisco Chronicle and The Phoenix Gazette agreed to a sponsorship of the competing beasts. On the day of the race, casino-owner Bill Harrah had invited members of the Horseless Carriage Club, who drove vintage automobiles and dressed in vintage clothing, to make the journey up Geiger Grade to Virginia City. I can recall passing at least half the old cars that had boiled over coming up the hill.
Arriving in Virginia City, I immediately checked in with Mapes and then proceeded to the corral where the camels were held. When I reached the corral, I was accompanied by photographer Don Dondero. To get some up close and personal pictures, he suggested that we climb into the enclosure. That didn’t last long because we quickly found out that when you are a stranger approaching a camel, spit does happen.
As we exited the corral, I got a very alarming message from the handler of the beasts when he informed us that while the reins had arrived, the camels’ saddles had not been shipped. I quickly informed Mapes of that fact and we were on the verge of canceling the race when Huston noted that one of the beasts was a Bactrian, which was a camel of the two-humped variety. He said he thought he could manage to straddle the creature between its two humps and wouldn’t need a saddle. Pearson, who was an agile little fellow, said he thought he could maintain his balance on the one-humper camel, which was a Dromedary. Nevertheless, we began desperately searching for some sort of saddle, so that Pearson could hang on to his camel during this inaugural Comstock Camel Race.
For this race, Mapes himself was serving as valet to Huston while noted columnist Herb Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle was Pearson’s second.
Still having the dilemma of a saddle for Pearson, I spotted a tattered tennis net at the nearby high school playground. Accompanied by Dondero, we quickly were able to cut the net down, promising to pay the school for a replacement, and successfully wrapped it around Pearson’s one-hump camel. Virginia City not able Charles Clegg fired the pistol to start the race. Actually, the race was over when it began because Huston’s two-humper made a beeline for the stables, which were at the finish line.
On the other hand, Pearson’s camel made a detour through the enormously large crowd of spectators and into Piper’s Opera House, causing minimal damage. Dondero and I were in the bed of a pickup truck ahead of the racers in order to catch some photos of the action.
Following the race, there was a very well attended awards party at the Sharon House, the premiere dining spot in Virginia City at that time. Having attended the inaugural camel race in 1960 on “B” street and the more recent tepid races at the current VC locale—the excitement and crowd of the first race will never be matched, but at least its momentum has lasted 57 years.
During Herb Caen’s tenure at the San Francisco Chronicle, a one sentence item in his daily column was considered a public relations coup. When Caen personally covered the inaugural camel race he devoted an entire column to the event. He titled the column, “One hump or two?”