OK bear with me now because there is a “wagon road” tie-in to Route 66 in this story. We often hear that much of Route 66 follows the already present Santa Fe Railroad route. However, have you ever considered how the path of the railroad was mapped out? Surely they had their own engineers and scouts who designed the path westward, but when it comes to New Mexico and Arizona we need to give credit to an even earlier path finder.
Edward Fitzgerald “Ned” Beale (February 4, 1822 – April 22, 1893)
Ned was the son of George Beale, who was a paymaster in the U.S. Navy and had earned a Congressional Medal for Valor in the War of 1812. His mother, Emily, was the daughter of Commodore Thomas Truxton of the U.S. Navy. It’s no surprise then, that President Jackson appointed him to the Naval School in Philadelphia which began a long, proud career in the Navy.
A war hero and friend of Kit Carson and Buffalo Bill
There is much written about his time in the service including his heroics at the “Battle of San Pasqual” during the war with Mexico. At this battle near San Diego, American troops were outnumbered and the battle seemed lost when Beale and Kit Carson crept through enemy lines and returned with reinforcements. After the war, Beale made six journeys across the country. On the second of these (July–September 1848), he crossed Mexico in disguise to bring the federal government proof of California’s gold. Beale resigned from the Navy as a Lieutenant in 1851.
Beale’s Wagon Road and Camel Corps
In 1857, President James Buchanan appointed Beale to survey and build a 1,000-mile wagon road from Fort Defiance, New Mexico to the Colorado River. The survey also incorporated an experiment for the Army using camels, first proposed by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis four years earlier. Along with the camels were camel drivers that had been imported from Arab countries. Beale’s report on the camel experiment was positive. The camels could carry heavy loads and could go days without water. He also reported that managing the camels was at times difficult but not as difficult as managing the camel drivers. Camels, being notoriously stubborn, insisted on chasing after the horses and mules frightening their handlers and everyone else around them. This obstinate behavior coupled with the coming Civil War caused the military to lose interest in the camel experiment. At this time the animals were sold at auction and some were turned loose in the desert. One of the few camel drivers whose name survives was Hi Jolly (Hadji Ali). He lived out his life in Arizona. After his death in 1902, he was buried in Quartzite, Arizona. His grave is marked by a pyramid-shaped monument topped with a metal profile of a camel.
And here’s the tie-in to Route 66
Beale’s surveyed road became the route for settlers, California gold seekers and eventually the general direction for the Santa Fe Railroad, Route 66 and today’s Interstate 40. Of this road, Beale wrote: “… It is the shortest (route) from our western frontier by 300 miles, being nearly directly west. It is the most level, our wagons only double-teaming once in the entire distance, and that at a short hill, and over a surface heretofore unbroken by wheels or trail on any kind. It is well-watered! Our greatest distance without water at any time being twenty miles … It crosses the great desert (which must be crossed by any road to California) at its narrowest point.”
After the Civil War, Beale retired to Rancho Tejon, part of 270,000 acres he had acquired near present-day Bakersfield, California. He thought highly of the camels and in fact purchased some when they were sold at auction. He kept these at Rancho Tejon and was reportedly seen driving a camel drawn cart around the area. In 1870 he bought the Decatur House in Washington, D.C. After that he divided his time between his two homes. In 1876, President Ulysses Grant appointed Beale as Minister to Austria-Hungary, a post he held for a year. Grant also suggested Beale as Navy Secretary during President Chester Arthur’s administration, but Arthur preferred someone else. Beale died at Decatur House on April 22, 1893.
Ghosts in the desert
Though the abandoned beasts of the Camel Corps roamed the deserts for decades, they soon disappeared altogether. In 1907, a prospector reported that he had seen two wild camels in Nevada and other reports continued to come in sporadically. However, in April, 1934, the Oakland Tribune reported: “The Last American Camel Is Dead.” The camel, dubbed “Topsy,” was last seen trekking across the Arizona desert into California. When she made her way to Los Angeles, she was taken to Griffith Park Zoo to live. However, sometime later, she became so crippled and paralyzed, the zoo attendants were forced to put her down. In spite of this news, stories of “ghost camel” sightings prevail to this day.