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 which 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 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 founded in 2009 could pick her up at the airport and drop her off in 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 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, it was where I got my journalism chops.
It’s also the area where I got most of my high-profile nonprofit experience working through the 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 communities I’ve ever lived in.
But this story is about the curse.
Until 1961, the town was an important railway station of the B&O line, now included in the CSX transportation system. When passenger service ended, the tracks were removed, literally cutting off the town situated on the Ohio River from any opportunity to continue as a viable port.
When I lived there, the 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 therein and others out.
In fact, it took us three years to sell our house. A restrictive covenant we ignored 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. It is a city with 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.
Thank you for reading! If you find any typos, grammatical errors, or editorial corrections, please indicate them in the comment box.