For more than ten years, I lived in a town whose name was loosely translated into The Place of the Skull. The name allegedly originated from a curse leveled on the town by a Delaware Indian tribal chief whose family members were slaughtered during the Native American Trade of the 1700s.
Legend has it, when a person commits a deed that is judged evil; the person, the deed and the land where the deed was committed is also considered evil. To warn other Indigenous Americans of the evil spirit in the town, the skull of a white rum trafficker, who allegedly was one of the assailants, was placed on a stick and left on a hill peak in the town.
According to a local historian and author, Alan Fitzpatrick, before there were any wars, before European settlers took over the area, there were clans who were trafficking rum and trading other goods who would encounter the indigenous people traveling on the east-west path known as the National Road (Route 40).
Aside: my home was on National Road. Tuck this tidbit of information away until later. It will make sense then.
Fitzpatrick, whom I worked with as a producer on his documentary – “The Fort Henry Story”, said, the traders, soon-to-be settlers, would peacefully trade with the indigenous people. Then reports indicate the traders eventually got greedy, got the tribes drunk and would steal their furs, horses and anything they thought valuable. Eventually, the traders would displace the Indians, pushing them further west, but not before slaughtering a great many. Hence, the skull warning from the survivors to any indigenous people who would enter the territory.
Today, the town is like a place that time forgot.
This past weekend my oldest daughter tried to return. She’d planned to attend her high school’s 15th class reunion. Since she doesn’t drive, it meant she would have to rent a local limousine to pick her up from the airport to drive her to the town. The cost was $98 one way. She priced a Uber and the cost was $77 but the town’s legislators have not yet passed a Uber law. A Uber driver from the ride sharing company, that was founded in 2009, could pick her up at the airport and drop her off at the town. However that same driver isn’t allowed to pick up any passengers for the return trip. There’s no other transportation between the closest airport which is 50 miles away and the town that is situated underneath Interstate 70.
I don’t want it to appear I’m bad-mouthing the town’s leaders because I’m not. I loved it there. The town, the place of the skull, is was where I got my journalism chops.
It’s also the area where I got most of my high-profile nonprofit experience working through Federal Home Loan Bank, National Park Service and Office of Justice Programs.
The friends I made and the people I met there made up one of the most nurturing community I’ve ever lived in.
But this story is about the curse.
Right up until 1961, the town was the site of an important railway station of the B&O line which is now included in the CSX transportation system. When passenger service ended, the tracks were removed literally cutting off the town, that is situated on the Ohio River, from any opportunity to continue as a viable port.
When I lived there, population was 35,000 and was served by two of America’s most powerful senators, Robert Byrd and Jay Rockefeller. In 2010, U.S. Census reports population was 28,000+ which was almost 14,000 fewer residents since the town’s heyday in 1910.
Still, I’m not sure if there’s anything to the curse. In fact, I believe a curse can only prosper if there’s a belief in it. But this town does seem to be plagued with east-west transportation challenges. It’s as if the town is punishing those who attempt to travel the east-west route, by keeping those who live there in and others out.
In fact, it took us three years to sell our house. A restrictive covenant we didn’t pay attention initially, had a hold on us for a while. We burned sage, planted artifacts and eventually we were released from the covenant. After my daughter’s high school graduation, we left the town for good .
15 years later when she attempted to return, my daughter decided against traveling into the town and chose to meet her former classmates in a city about 50 miles away. A city that has a bustling transportation system including an airport named the best of 2017 – and no known curse on its land.
As I mentioned, I worked for several nonprofits in the town. All had a similar mission which focused on revitalization and stimulating growth. We did the best we could but something always seemed to block our final efforts. Looking back, it seems the curse wasn’t on the community – it was on the transportation route.
Maybe our time and those millions of dollars would have been better spent burning sage up and down the 16 miles of the east-west path now known as U.S. Route 40 – National Road. Then possibly the “Place of the Skull” would instead be known as a thriving metropolis on the Ohio River.
More on the Place of the Skull can be found in the book of the same name by Alan Fitzpatrick.
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