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“Graveyard of Oregon Trail” still said to be haunted

Laurel Hill (Rhododendron Village) was the most dangerous part of the Barlow Road, the overland route for Oregon Trail emigrants; casualties were many in the 1840s, and ghost stories are plentiful today.

A sunset view of Mount Hood as seen from the Columbia River Gorge,
lithographed in 1904. Rhododendron Village is located near a saddle
low on the near slope of the mountain.

If Oregon Trail pioneer Sam Barlow had been murdered, it would have been because of Laurel Hill. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of emigrants would have cheerfully done the deed if he’d been handy when they were descending this terrifying grade.

Laurel Hill was the worst spot on the Barlow Road, which was saying something — the rest of the Barlow Road was not exactly posh either. It was so steep that wagons had to be lowered down the slope with block and tackle. Some of these parties hadn’t brought strong enough ropes, and more than a few wagons hurtled down the hill to end up in messy — and often bloody — wrecks. And, to add insult to injury, each party had paid Barlow the then-princely sum of $5 for permission to use the road, which he had blazed in 1845.

Bad as the Barlow Road was, the alternative — a wild and chancy excursion through the rapids of the Columbia River in a caulked wagon or on a prohibitively expensive ferry — was worse.

Still, typically by the time an emigrant party reached it, everyone was just about played out, the livestock were skinny and feeble and often at least one person was on the brink of death.

Laurel Hill pushed more than a few of those over the threshold, and it’s a safe bet that at least one or two of those died with a curse for Sam Barlow on their lips.

At the bottom of the hill was a more-or-less permanent camp, where the emigrants would stop, nurse their wounds, catch their breath — and bury their dead.

Today, the site of that camp is Rhododendron Village (the “laurels” of Laurel Hill were actually rhodies). Rhododendron Village is basically an old logging camp, which the Cascade Geographic Society is in the process of restoring to its 1890s splendor.

And the word is, the place is haunted.

Smitten reports that strange glowing “orbs” have appeared in photos taken of the old bunkhouses; the buildings, which don’t have much in the way of foundations, shake mysteriously as if under footsteps; and, most puzzlingly, when an old piano with a mirror on the front of it was photographed, a woman’s face appeared in the mirror, as if she were playing it.

There’s also a door in the old mess hall — between the cook’s sleeping quarters and the kitchen area -- that is reputed to open by itself every day at around 4 a.m. The theory is that a ghostly cook is getting up to start fixing breakfast.

Volunteers in 2001 found a pair of rock-covered graves — a pioneer grave and a Native American grave — near the mess hall. Of course, a photo was taken. When the film was developed, those strange orbs were hovering over them.

All of this may be true evidence of pioneer ghosts, or it may be the fruit of overheated imaginations of people all too aware that they’re standing on the site of one of the great graveyards of the Oregon Trail. Either way, the legends add spice to one of the most dramatic places in Oregon’s history.

The old village is easy to find and well worth a visit; from Highway 26 after passing through Welches, turn north on Lolo Pass Road and go straight onto Autumn Lane.

(Sources: Smitten, Susan. Ghost Stories of Oregon. Edmonton: Ghost House, 2001; Gulick, Bill. Roadside History of Oregon. Missoula: Mountain Press, 1994)