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David Templeton's Seldom Seen: A journey to find the meaning behind Shades of Death Road

Sunday, April 22, 2001

By David Templeton, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Seldom Seem, David Templeton's whimsical perspective on life and times in and around Washington County, appears weekly in Washington Sunday.

As I wheeled onto Shades of Death Road near Avella, I was greeted by an eerie welcoming committee -- haunting silence and three turkey buzzards circling overhead.

The only thing lacking was background music from "Jaws" or "Psycho."

Deciding to barrel down this bodacious byway, I could only hope the buzzards planned to snack on road kill rather than Templeton-kababs.

So I followed the gravel road in Jefferson down the ridge face into Washington's heart of darkness with no idea what to expect -- ax murderers or oak trees? The living dead or living happily ever after? Mummies or mammas?

In truth, the name does kick up some nervous atmosphere. But more nerve-wracking is the fact no one knows why it's named Shades of Death. With such a name, one expects explanation.

Granted, Shades of Death is more provocative than, say, Pea Road in Cross Creek or Aunt Clara Road in Hanover.

The county has plenty of traditional, backwash names -- Pole Cat Hollow Road in Blaine, Possum Hollow Road in Hopewell and Owl Hollow Road in Morris, and a series of runs named Plum, Potato, Dog, Raccoon and Horse.

But one might argue Shades of Death is the most spine-tingling road name in the county, beating out in my mind such brow-beating back roads as Devil's Den and Acid Dump in Hanover and Dynamite in Amwell -- places where one might expect to encounter Beelzebub, burns and blasts.

Regardless the name, Shades of Death maintains an unmistakable aura.

It connects Campbell Drive and Bethel Ridge Road by dipping down to cross then follow Hollow Rock Run and its picturesque waterfall. There are six houses along its length of less than two miles.

En route, the road succeeds in blending mystery and history, the macabre and the macadam to create a treasure that blends Thomas Hardy and Stephen King.

And while one might expect a story about Shades of Death on Halloween, spring begins revealing the road's enigmatic beauty -- the green tarpaulin of trees that creates a dark esophagus that eventually burps one up onto Bethel Ridge, but only after passing spooky Bethel Church and its hoary cemetery.

Tom Shernisky, who moved to Shades of Death five years ago, recounted the tale of Indians naming the road in the 1800s because the hemlock trees lining it blocked all sunlight. Dairy farmers hauling milk on wagons to Avella needed a guiding light to find their way at midday.

OK, that explains the Shade part.

But the tale suggests Indians using the D-word because of "poisonous" hemlock trees lining the road and creating shade. Problem is, hemlock plants, not trees, are poisonous.

Whatever its source, the name has become a self-fulfilled prophecy, giving rise to myths of murder and mayhem, fires and hangings, bad things and even worse things.

"What's in a name is what you make of it," Shernisky said. "I like it in a way. It keeps people away. A lot of kids come out for extracurricular activities, of course. It's a novelty thing."

Indeed, boys are drawn to the roadway like bees to nectar, but not only because of the name. On an early spring day, Glenn Lowe, 16; Bill Durbin, 18; and Chris Tuttle, 17; and his brother, Dusty, 14, all from Avella, strolled down Shades of Death in search of "a little adventure." The four bounded across Hollow Rock Run and scrambled into long-abandoned coal mines. Talk about shades of death.

The four went spelunking without fear, leaving the reporter and photographer behind to look out for buzzards and the Three Bears.

When the county 911 system led to regulations that all county residences have street addresses, Maureen Gump and her family were upset they had to list Shades of Death in their address. The Gumps petitioned Jefferson supervisors to use Bethel Church Road instead, but supervisors feared confusion with Bethel Ridge Road.

But the road name "became a nonissue" when the Gumps began using a post office box rather than a street address.

When one needs answers in Jefferson, it's time to consult with Kathryn Slasor, a local historian who's writing a history of the area. Her six-page history on "Shades of Death," written in 1977, provides family anecdotes but few clues about the horrific name.

"Such a forbidding name for one of nature's most beautiful spots," she writes, noting how lost strangers find the name "appalling."

"Many tales have been handed down through the generations concerning this dark vale situated in the southeastern section of Jefferson," Slasor wrote. "These have included an assortment of yarns concerning the untimely demise of nameless individuals which, added to the natural darkness of the place, probably resulted in the unusual name."

Slasor described how tall trees, wildflowers, the winding road, stream and waterfall "combine to give it a rare natural beauty" and are conspirators in the name.

Timbering removed virgin hemlocks, diminishing the darkness of the road. But she acknowledges her mother, a resident of Shades of Death, helped perpetuate the legend by once telling her, "Of course, it's haunted. A shadow followed Grandma across the creek one night."

Other tales include a man groping his way through the dark who fell over a log and touched a dead body, and one who was found hanging from a roadside tree.

"And many others just as gruesome have come to my attention," Slasor wrote. "But the individuals are nameless, and no facts can substantiate any of the stories. Thus with tales such as these being handed down through the generations, it is little wonder the name, Shades of Death, evolved."

So as I traveled the road, the name circled like turkey buzzards in my brain as the ambiance created mystique. I was almost disappointed goblins -- shadows -- didn't follow me.

I beheld only beauty, perhaps enhanced, perhaps tainted by the road's shocking name.

And those looming buzzards, circling like specters with ugly red heads and epic wingspans, seemed to exist only to boost the road's morbid reputation, because one thing's for sure -- they never got a taste of my Templeton-kababs.

David Templeton can be reached by e-mail at:

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