Ever visited the Odd Fellows Rocks? Most folks don’t even know they’re here. But they’re a fascinating and easily-accessible site along the old Emigrant Trail, near the top of Carson Pass!
Several jubilant emigrants paused here between August 25 and 27, 1849, after successfully ascending the infamous “Devil’s Ladder” — one of the most difficult stretches that overland emigrants faced in the entire overland journey. These pioneers honored the occasion by painting their names and the dates of their visit on the large clusters of rocks they found at the top.
And yes, you can still see the pioneer’s names! Well, some of them, anyway. The original white-lead inscriptions have been painted over multiple times now, in an effort to preserve them. Some may have been corrupted a bit by this well-intentioned “preservation” effort. And unfortunately, time and erosion have erased some of the signatures entirely from the rock. But many full and partial names still remain. And oh, don’t we wish we knew what happened to each of those early visitors!
They’re called the “Odd Fellows” inscriptions because many of the writers also left the tell-tale three-ring symbol associated with the Odd Fellows’ motto: friendship, love, and truth. As for the passing emigrants themselves, we haven’t yet been able to trace the history of many of the rock-signers. But among the still-legible names is at least one emigrant whose later exploits we have been able to find.
R.E. Wilhoit was just 20 years old when he stopped at this spot in 1850 to add his lettering to the already-graffitied rocks. (Yes, Wilhoit was here a year after the original Odd Fellows group passed by.) At the time, of course, this young man had no way of knowing what his future in California would hold. But it turned out to be golden indeed!
Like so many eager emigrants, Wilhoit mined for a time at Mokelumne Hill and other Gold Rush towns before eventually moving on to Stockton in 1852. There he became a noted citizen, holding a variety of important public posts including stints as County Recorder, County Supervisor, and City Councilman. In later life Wilhoit evidently decided to “follow the money”: he became a banker. Eleven years after his difficult journey up Devil’s Ladder, Wilhoit married Delia Dwelley and together they would have six children. It was a future the 20-year-old probably never envisioned on that hot summer day when he paused to scrawl his name on the rocks in 1850!
A second emigrant whose name is still visible is F.P. Belcher, who also left us the date of his visit: “Aug 24, ‘49”. Although we don’t know this Belcher’s identity for sure, it’s possible this was the same F.P. Belcher who was born in 1830 and arrived in California with his two younger brothers by covered wagon from Woodstock, Illinois. That F.P. Belcher found employment as a freight hauler in the “truck and van business;” lived on Russian Hill in San Francisco before moving to Oakland; married a woman named Louise Hamilton; and had five children. If indeed it is the same person, he would have been about 18 years old when he left his moniker on this pile of rocks.
There’s yet another tantalizing inscription tucked among the names: “McHenry County, Illinois” is written in at least two places. Perhaps this was the home county that some emigrants had just left; or it might have been the name given to their wagon train. We haven’t had any luck (so far!) in tracing any of the names with certainty back to that particular location. But that F.P. Belcher we mentioned, from Woodstock, Illlinois? Well, Woodstock just happens to be the county seat of McHenry County. Hmm.
Several early Carson Valley-ites also appear to have ties with that same McHenry County, Illinois, too. Pioneer settler Emanuel Penrod was said to have hailed from there. And Joseph Raycraft, Sr. married his wife Ellen back in McHenry County, where he owned a farm, before leading a wagon train west.
Two more potential but harder-to-prove connections: newspaper records listing the members of passing of emigrant trains tell us Ira Luther and J.A. Rhodes were among a Michigan wagon group planning to cross the Missouri River on May 16, 1849. That same day, the “Spartan Band” train — from none other than McHenry County, Illinois — was also assembled beside Missouri River. Included among the Spartan Band’s members was a man named James H. Van Sickle — certainly a familiar last name for Carson Valley folks!
Did early Valley settler Ira Luther join up with the folks from McHenry County on his journey west? And was “James” Van Sickle any relation of our well-known local Van Sickle family? That’s probably a “no” for Ira Luther, at least as far as joining an 1849 McHenry County wagon train for any length of time. Luther did own property in Ogle and Stephenson Counties, Illinois, roughly 70-75 miles from McHenry. But an unverified account by Ira’s son claims Ira contracted cholera in Missouri in 1849, finally making made the journey West in 1850 by schooner and rounding the Horn to land in San Francisco. So for now these are just tantalizing possible further connections to McHenry County, Illinois.
We hope you’ll pay a visit to the Odd Fellows Rocks to see the pioneer names on the rocks for yourself, and check out their homage to McHenry County. (Directions to get there are given below.) Be sure to gaze down at the Devil’s Ladder itself while you’re there, and imagine emigrants hauling their wagons and animals up this incredibly steep climb. It rises an amazing 700 feet in elevation over a distance of less than a mile. For the true flavor of what that meant, here’s how the emigrants themselves described the experience:
“After two hours’ hard work lifting at the wheels, whipping our tired teams, and using language not becoming church members, we gained a resting place and well did we need one. After a short rest we are again on the move; the way is now more smooth but very steep and crooked; a man to every wheel, and one to every horse and mule; a few steps and then a rest.” John Hawkins Clark, 1852.
“The most astonishing thing respecting the road is that any man of common sense should have first thought of taking a wagon over it.” William Tell Parker, 1850.
Once successfully at the top, some emigrants tossed their hats in the air in celebration, making the “echoes of the Sierra Nevada acquainted with the mode of cheering in good society!” as one wrote in his diary.
Others simply left their names here on the rocks — a happy sign to commemorate their passing. They probably never imagined that visitors would stop by to read their names 170 years later.
Like to visit the Odd Fellows Rocks for yourself? Here are directions!
Take Hwy 88 headed west toward Carson Pass. Just before you reach the summit, watch carefully for a paved road on your left and turn left (carefully!) onto this paved road. A day-use parking fee applies in this area, so look for the pay drop just after you make the turn. Once you pay the parking fee, follow the paved road the short distance downhill to a cul-de-sac parking area at the end. Be sure to pause here to read the interpretive sign (it includes great illustrations!) and admire the stunning overlook!
At the low end of the cul-de-sac, a dirt trail on your right will lead you into the forest where you can gaze down on a trail (on your left) — and see the near-vertical trail they called the Devil’s Ladder. It’s a great section of the Emigrant Trail to actually hike later, if you’re adventuresome enough!
To find the Odd Fellows Rocks, follow the trail on your right that leads upwards and away from the Devil’s Ladder. A short distance uphill, you’ll reach a rocky bench — and will spot the large pile of rocks with white lettering. (They’re above the cul-de-sac and overlook the spot where you parked.) This is the spot where thousands of weary emigrants and animals rested and regrouped after the climb.
Before returning to your car, take time to search out the Unknown Pioneer’s Grave, which is hidden in the trees between the Odd Fellows rocks and the paved road that you drove in on. This monument was erected to honor an anonymous pioneer who died here in the wilderness after months of arduous travel, never reaching the fabled gold fields.