Legend has it that many years ago, a car of teenagers were driving down a country road near Hacketsttown after their prom. Due to the excessive wind and slippery conditions, the car crashed into a ditch and a girl, still in her prom dress, died.
To this day, you can still see her wandering the curve that she died on, wearing the same prom dress. The name of this road is actually “Shades of Death Road”.
Shades Of Death Road, sometimes referred to locally as just “Shades”, is a two-lane rural road of about 7 miles (11.2 km) in length in central Warren County, New Jersey.
It runs in a generally north-south direction through Liberty and Independence townships, then turns more east-west in Allamuchy Township north of the Interstate 80 crossing. South of I-80 it runs alongside Jenny Jump State Forest and offers access to it at several points.
Several explanations have been given for the road’s macabre name, none of which has ever been conclusively established. It has given rise to many local legends about ghosts and other paranormal activity along the road, many of which have been documented in Weird NJ magazine and the accompanying book. These in turn have drawn more visitors to the area, to the infrequent annoyance of residents, who have in the past gone so far as to smear the pole holding the street sign at the road’s southern end with grease or oil to prevent theft (Other signs along the road are in vertical type on poles and thus harder to remove and less desirable to display).
Location and Route
Shades Of Death’s southern end is at County Route 611, or Hope Road, in Liberty Township one mile (1.6 km) north of the junction with County Route 617 (Mountain Lake Road) and two miles (3.2 km) north of where Hope splits off from U.S. Route 46 at Marble Hill, just west of Great Meadows. From that point it meanders along between the base of the Jenny Jump ridge and the low-lying flatlands of the Pequest River valley. About half a mile (almost 1 km) north of the interstate, in Allamuchy, it turns to the east and enters those flatlands, continuing all the while to weave back and forth through some sharp turns, until it reaches its northern terminus at Long Bridge Road.
An official name as grim as Shades of Death is fairly odd, prompting interest in its origin. Unfortunately, this origin is old enough that it has been lost to history, but there are several theories.
Some focus on the road’s southern half, where the adjoining forest with its aged trees provides much actual shade from the sun on even the brightest days. Highwaymen or other bandits would supposedly lay in wait for victims in these shadows, then often cut their throats after taking their booty, or they would engage in fights to the death among themselves over women.
Or, it is said, the local populace would take revenge against these highwaymen by lynching them and leaving the bodies dangling from low-hanging tree branches as a warning to others criminally inclined.
In the 1920s and 1930s there were three brutal murders along the road, one a robbery in which a man was hit over the head with a tire jack over some gold coins, a second in which a woman beheaded her husband and buried the head and the body on different sides of the street, and lastly one in which a local resident, Bill Cummins, was shot and buried in a mudpile. It was never solved.
The twists and turns of the road have led to suggestions that it has led to an inordinate number of fatal car accidents, and supposedly the reflective guard rails along the road indicate where that has happened. However, the road had earned its name well before automobile use became common in the area.
Bear Swamp nearby was known as either Cat Hollow or Cat Swamp, because of packs of vicious wild cats that lived there who frequently and lethally attacked travelers along the road.
A final explanation points to the Pequest lowlands and nearby Bear Swamp, used today for sod farming. In 1850, malaria-carrying insects were discovered nesting in a cliff face along the road. They flourished in the nearby wetlands of Bear Swamp, causing annual outbreaks of the disease. The high mortality rates due to the remoteness of the area from effective medical treatment cut a swath through so many families that a street once called merely Shade or Shades Road due to its tree cover took on the name Shades Of Death out of black humor. The problem was so widespread, that in 1884 a state-sponsored project drained the swamps, ending the threat.
Sites of reputed paranormal activity
Two locations along Shades Of Death are said to be good places to see ghosts or other supernatural phenomena at the right time, but not without some supposed personal risk.
Ghost Lake (officially nameless) is just off the road, in the state forest south of the I-80 overpass. It was created in the early 20th century when two wealthy local men dammed a creek that ran through the narrow valley between houses they had just built. They gave it its name from the wraithlike vapor formations they often saw rising off it on cooler mornings. They further named the pass Haunted Hollow.
Today neither house is there, but it is believed that they were on to something with the name. Visitors have reported to Weird NJ that, no matter what time of night they visit the lake at, the sky above it always seems as bright as if it were still twilight. Several have reported what they believe to be actual ghosts in the area, especially in a deserted old cabin across the lake from the road, supposedly victims of the murders once believed to have given the road its name.
The Fairy Hole
To the right of Ghost lake, there is a small cave, once used by Lenape Indians. Though the cave is now easily accessible, and also covered in graffiti, archaeologists who surveyed the area in 1918 found pottery shards, flint, and broken arrow heads. From their findings, the archaeologists concluded that “The Fairy Hole” was not often visited. It may have been used as a simple resting point for traveling or hunting Lenape, but with its close proximity to several known burial sites, it is possible this was a sacred or religiously important site. This survey was conducted before the creation of Ghost Lake.
Lenape Lane is an unpaved one-lane dead-end street about three-quarter mile (1.1 km) in length running eastward off Shades just north of I-80. It ends at a farmhouse for which it is little more than a driveway, but halfway down there is space to park or turn around next to a wooden structure described as looking like an abandoned stable.
Visitors to this stable site at night have reported extremely local fogs surrounding it and seeing apparitions in it, or sometimes even in clear weather. They have also claimed the air is sometimes unusually chilly, and feeling general unease in the area for no immediately apparent reason.
Legend also has it that sometimes nocturnal visitors to Lenape see an orb of white light appear near the end of the road which chases vehicles back out to Shades Of Death. If it turns red in the process, those who see it will die.
This may be due to an old tree near the end of Lenape that was never cut down when the road was built. As a result, the road forks right before the tree, and a big red reflector has been nailed to the tree to warn drivers. Legend says that if one circles around the tree and drives down the road again at midnight, a red light will shine and the driver will never survive. This light has been seen by many people. It is actually the reflection of the moonlight on the red warning sign, and can only be seen when driving in a smaller vehicle.
There are some legends concerning a Native American spirit guide who supposedly takes the shape of a deer and appears at various points along the road at night. If drivers see him and do not slow down sufficiently enough to avoid a collision, they will soon get into a serious accident.
Another legend tells of a bridge where, if drivers stop past midnight with their high beams on and honk their horns three times, they will see the ghosts of two young children who were run over while playing in the road.
The mysterious Polaroids
One day during the 1990s, some visitors found hundreds of Polaroid photographs scattered in woods just off the road. They took some and shared them with Weird NJ, which published a few as samples.
Most of the disturbing images showed a television changing channels, others showed a woman or women, blurred and somewhat difficult to identify, lying on some sort of metal object, conscious but not smiling.
Local police began an investigation after the magazine ran an item with the photos, but the remainder disappeared shortly afterwards.
“Camp Spirit Lake”
In 2000, the first season of MTV’s reality show Fear, in which contestants were taken to places with allegedly unsavory, often reportedly haunted pasts and given missions to perform, included an episode set at a location called “Camp Spirit Lake”, a onetime summer camp allegedly located on Shades Of Death Road, where several gruesome murders had taken place in the past, one supposedly inspiring the first film in the Friday the 13th series.
However, while much of what was claimed about that location had parallels in the folklore and history of the area, none of what was claimed on the program as historical fact was true. The editors of Weird NJ devoted a web page to pointing out the inaccuracies in the program, chief among them that there is not and never has been a camp of any kind on Ghost Lake, Shades of Death does not run through Panther Valley (although it is not far away) and that Camp NoBeBoSco, the Boy Scout camp where the show was actually filmed (as well as Friday the 13th), is several miles away in Hardwick Township, outside Blairstown Township.