Postal history and children's literature might not seem a natural marriage, but a new book bridges the gap with the tale of a camel who helped carry freight across the Southwestern desert as part of the U.S. Army's 1850s "camel corps."

"Camille Carries the Mail" is by Lisa Hodgkins, the librarian and archivist at Tucson's Postal History Foundation, which promotes the appreciation of postal history and stamp collecting.

The book, for kids ages 3 to 9, tells kids about the Army's experiment using camels to carry freight. The story is told through the eyes of Camille, a camel who gets a little distracted on her journey to carry a little girl's letter across the Arizona desert. She makes it, of course, with some help from a few friends.

In 1848, after the discovery of gold in California, fortune-seekers by the thousands headed west. Soon, members of Congress were envisioning a railroad from the East to California, but struggled to agree on a route.

As deliberations dragged on, lawmakers - at the urging of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis - set aside money in 1856 for a wagon road that followed the 35th Parallel from Fort Smith, Ark., to Los Angeles.

Congress earmarked $30,000 for the purchase of a team of camels, which were better suited for the deserts of the Southwest than the horses and mules that traditionally were used.

In the 1850s there were no camels in the United States, so a U.S. Navy ship was sent to Turkey and Egypt to buy some and to hire camel drivers. The handlers and animals eventually arrived at their new home at Camp Verde, Texas.

In 1857, Lt. Edward F. Beale, a hero of the Mexican-American War, was tasked with building a wagon road across the New Mexico Territory, which included present-day Arizona, near the 35th parallel.

After choosing about 25 camels, he led the expedition, first heading north to Albuquerque, then turning west toward present-day Arizona. Beale's road roughly followed Lt. Amiel W. Whipple's trail west across Arizona through the present-day Flagstaff area, then Kingman and finally, months later, to the Colorado River. Beale then asked his camel driver, Hadji Ali (known as Hi Jolly) to guide the camels across the Colorado River and on to California.

The general route of Beale's road was later followed by Route 66, and eventually Interstate 40.

After the Civil War broke out, the idea of using camels was largely forgotten.

If you go

• What: Launch party for "Camille Carries the Mail" by Lisa Hodgkins. Events include story time by the author, a stamp-design contest and other activities for kids.

• Where: Postal History Foundation, 920 N. First Ave.

• When: 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Tuesday

• Cost: Admission is free to children and adults. Books will be sold for $9.99 each, and three different commemorative envelopes with a camel cancel will be available for $2.50 each. Proceeds from the book and commemorative envelopes go to support the nonprofit foundation.

• For more information: 623-6652,