New Jersey is no stranger to creepy stories. Home to the Westfield Watcher, the Jersey Devil, and the Devil’s Tower in Alpine (to name a few), the Garden State is certainly an eerie place to be during Halloween. It also has some incredibly quirky street names, from Sesame Street in Atco to Manlove Avenue in Hightstown, to the particularly silly Goa Way in Lavallette. But none are as famous or spooky as Warren County’s Shades of Death Road. This New Jersey street is packed full of creepy folklore, with myths + legends ranging from murders to ferocious beasts and malaria outbreaks. In honor of spooky season, we’re taking a look at the history, legends, and background of Shades of Death Road. Read more about the history of one of the most haunted roads in the country.
The Shady History
Shades of Death Road runs along the woods and campgrounds of Jenny Jump State Forest, which has its own spooky origin story. According to Atlas Obscura, it is believed that the park got its name from “an unfortunate incident involving a girl named Jenny.” It is said that a young girl named Jenny was in these woods with her father when the Minsi tribe of the Lenape Native Americans came across the pair. Jenny’s father felt frightened and cornered, so he told his daughter to “jump, Jenny, Jump.” As tragic as this story might be, others say there is no sad start to the state park; it is simply named after the Anglicized version of the original Lenape name.
Read More: The History of the Jersey Devil
Shades of Death Road’s name is a bit of a mystery. It is believed that the road was originally named “The Shades” because of the tree canopy that hangs over the whole length of the route. However, after many fatal events, locals are said to have added “Death” to its name, which clearly stuck.
The earliest folktale originated in the area about a pack of what Weird New Jersey calls “ferocious beasts.” Whether wildcats, dogs, or some other mysterious creatures, the area was so well known for the beasts that Petersburg’s section of Warren County is still referred to as Cat Hallow and Cat Swamp. Apparently, there were enough animal attacks that locals rightfully feared the region.
Another legend recounts the numerous murders in this meadow by a band of highwaymen and squatters. This rough-and-ready gang would fight over women and rob whoever was traveling the area alone, often resulting in death or murder. In addition, it was said the squatters would slit the throats of unsuspecting wanderers, stealing all they had. In return, the locals rounded up the outlaws and hung them all along the road as a warning to would-be perpetrators. There is also a lesser-known report of 42 lynchings in this region.
At least three murders happened here in the 1920s and ’30s. One man was murdered near his car with his jack over a collection of gold coins. One woman brutally killed her husband and then buried his head on one side of Shades of Death Road, his torso on the other. And one unsolved murder involved a man named Bill Cummins, who was shot near his residence and roughly buried under a pile of debris. With the murders that were said to have occurred here, the locals coined the road’s moniker “Death” to warn others of its danger.
But perhaps Shades of Death Road acquired its name not from murder but rather from a natural phenomenon that literally plagued the region. Known roughly as the “Great Meadows,” this area of New Jersey was quite swampy. In the 1850s, an outbreak of malarial mosquitoes swarmed the area and settlements that resided here. As locals anticipated the yearly uptick in malaria deaths and the passing of family members and friends, they referred to the deathly aspects of living in the meadows. The effects were particularly extreme according to the 1877 written account of malaria here. Local Dr. William I. Roe stated that “the intermittent were very severe and many of the residents expected the usual attacks of chills in the spring while a family moving into the neighborhood from a non-malarial district seldom escaped the ravages of miasma in one form or another.” Years later, the state offered $100,000 to drain the swamp, which was expensive and involved. Once draining was completed in 1884, cases of malaria waned. But Shades of Death Road was a continuous reminder of what had passed.
The Deathly Hauntings
Of course, as with any scary New Jersey haunt, there are the ghost stories, sightings, and experiences. One ghost story recalls a car full of teenagers roaring with joy after they spent hours dancing the night away at their high school prom. The night was misty and dark, and when the driver lost control, the whole vehicle ran into a ditch. A teenage passenger was tragically killed. It is said that on rainy nights, you can see a young girl wandering the deathly roadside in her prom dress.
Via the Podcast, “Talking with Shadows – Episode 3: Shades of Death Road“:
“Death just seems to hover in that area.”
A paranormal investigator and writer for Weird New Jersey visited the road in the early fall of 1994 and shared his experiences. He heard many origin stories about Jenny Jump State Park but asserted that a young girl named Jenny jumped into the lake and died. He tells many stories of violence and colonial history from the area’s first settling. He claims that the common phenomenon is the ghost of Jenny, who is seen walking on water.
There are urban legends, yes, but he believes there has been documented paranormal activity. This interviewee has been on the road five times in all different seasons. At night, he heard sounds (dogs barking, animals, people talking in the distance) and saw the fog on the lake. On a later trip, he went looking for the “murder house” that dates back to the 1940s when a woman kidnapped children at a summer camp after her child went missing and went on to murder these kids in her house over a series of years. When he visited the ruins of the house and proceeded to investigate, the mailbox inexplicably burst into flames, scaring the life out of him and his cousin. He was so scared that he left his camera and tripod to flee the area as soon as possible.
After a quick Dunkin’ Donuts run and rest until it was light, he returned to the site, where he discovered the rusted mailbox intact. The house was torn down in the early-2000s, and the experience completely alludes to his sensibilities.
A haunting line from the podcast states, “Jersey is one screwed-up state. There’s a lot of history, a lot of dark history, a lot of legends.”
Via the Podcast “Morbid – Episode 326: Spooky Roads Vol. 5“:
This top podcast calls Shades of Death Road “one of the most haunted roads in the world.” Along the road is an old haunted lake, and if you drive by this site at night, you may see the “Great Meadow’s Fog.” Legend has it that early settlers partook in massacring the local tribes, drowning them or tossing their bodies into the lake. Apparently, when you see this fog, you can sometimes see apparitions of those murdered natives lit from the sky above.
Shades of Death Road Today
Shades of Death Road is a paved, 7-mile stretch just off of I-80 that weaves through farmland and along a section of Jenny Jump State Forest. Most visitors get scared when Google maps displays the road’s name, while others become intrigued. The street is marked by printed posts rather than classic metal signs because the signs were too frequently stolen or vandalized. With the unique name and nature of the sign, it’s no wonder it was a souvenir locals and visitors would want to take. The road is quiet, still, and silent in the winter. There is a lot of fog off the lake and a general eerie feeling. Visitors report cold spots, even in the summer heat, where temperatures drop from the 60s and 70s to the 40s.
A nearby cave, donned The Faery Cave, was used by Lenape Indians as an outpost, not as a dwelling. Soot covers the cave’s ceiling in places where fire has been burned. The cave is open to park visitors.
Some locals are said not to be particularly friendly and don’t like tourists wandering through the area, so visitors should be wary and respectful to residents.
The podcast, Talking with Shadows, says that “Shades of Death Road lives up to its name.”