Strange tale of Shades-of-Death Creek may have biblical origin

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Strange tale of Shades-of-Death Creek may have biblical origin
An old homestead stands on the edge of pastures south of Shades of Death Creek. (Photo by David Sibray)

How did Shades-of-Death Creek in West Virginia gain such a strange name? That mystery has long been a subject of speculation in the highlands east of the New River Gorge.

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Such a clear and beautiful stream—the waters of which help turn the world-renowned gristmill at Babcock State Park—might deserve a more scenic name, perhaps, but despite that, Shades-of-Death has been on the books since the late 1800s.

Later mapped as "Shade Creek," Shades-of-Death Creek appears on a 1915 map.

A hunt for the origin of the name on the Internet is likely to turn up little, though the matter had been discussed locally through the years and was famously recounted by the late historian Shirley Donnelly, who mentioned it in several newspaper columns in the 1950s.

According to Donnelly, the naming is connected to a ghost story, the details of which go something like this: One evening, a farmer was out mowing his fields. This being the 1800s, he was swinging a scythe, its long curved blade sweeping waist-high across the grass. A young daughter came up behind him unseen, and before he was aware of her, the blade had cut across her throat. Thereafter, the little stream that sourced on the farm was given the name "Shades-of-Death Creek."

Long after, folks in the region reported hearing an anguished wail born on the wind, said to be the ghostly echo of the grieving farmer who still walks the highlands. Now in the neighborhood of Maplewood, the rural locale seems the ideal spot for such a haunting.

The tale through the years has been changed here and there. In some versions, the daughter's head is cleanly removed. In others, the farmer dies of grief or by his own hand. It's a good ghost story—particularly if you happen to be listening to it told at night in the hills that drain into that oddly named stream.

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However, there may be another reason why Shades-of-Death Creek is so-named. While the term "shades of death" may sound remarkable to our ears—certainly more oddly turned than even "Death Creek" would have been—it appears a number of times in some translations of the Book of Job.

Early Summer at Babcock Mill

Depending on the translation, the "shades" has been used in place of "shadow." In some instances, Psalms 23:4 is rendered, "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shades of death, I will fear no evil."

In any case, given the odd turn of phrase, is it possible the origin of the creek's name is biblical? Given the hardiness and religiosity of settlers in that region, that might bear consideration. That said, the ghost story is one is likely to be told around campfires for years to come.

For more information on visiting the creek or Babcock State Park, contact the .

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