Haunted Florida: The Legend of the I-4 Dead Zone

by AbbyFitz

Underneath a section of I-4 in central Florida lie the bodies of a family of four. Strange things have happened in the quarter mile stretch known as the "Dead Zone."

Near Sanford, Florida, there’s a quarter mile stretch of I-4 that’s considered one of the most deadly in the United States. Accidents happen on this flat stretch of highway for no apparent reason. Is it bad driving, a bad road design, or something paranormal?

Soon after construction began in the 1960’s, car accidents, ghostly sightings, and electronic disruptions are reported on a regular basis.

In the 1880’s, an immigrant family died suddenly and was buried on a farm near the St. Johns River. Since then, odd things have happened to anyone associated with their final resting place, known locally as “the Field of the Dead.”

Whether you’re a believer or a skeptic like me, you can’t deny there’s definitely some weirdness going on in the I-4 Dead Zone.

The Legend Begins in the Wilds of Florida

Florida was once a wilderness few dared to explore.

Florida Swamp SunsetTo tell this story, I first need to strip away everything you think you know about modern Florida. Take away the nearly 20 million people who reside here and the millions more who flock to the Sunshine State each year.

Obliterate the concrete and pavement that cover acres of ground for miles at a time. There’s no air conditioning, no condos, no swimming pools, and no electricity. All that’s left is something that’s extinct in Florida now:  untouched land.

True, Florida has been inhabited by indigenous peoples for thousands of years, but it wasn’t until 1565 that Spanish explorers discovered the mysterious “land of flowers.” Until then, land and man had coexisted in harmony. After discovery, though, the never-ending attempt to bend the wild Florida landscape to man’s will began and continues to this day.

St. Augustine and other coastal cities popped up and thrived, but only a brave few ventured into the unknown interior. Natives, dense forests, swamps, diseases, and wild animals were dangers that kept most people on the cool and more comfortable coastlines.

Florida PioneersIn the 1860’s and ‘70’s, things began to change.  By this time, most Indians had been sent to reservations, and the newly constructed railroad lines made the interior easier to access. The interior saw a surge of settlers who wanted to build their lives in the Florida Territory.  Soon, small cities were built, most often beside the many lakes and rivers that make up the majority of the State of Florida.

But it wasn’t only settlers who were seeking a better life in the Sunshine State. Businessmen from up north saw Florida as a fortune waiting to be cashed in.  Then, as now, they saw the profitability of Florida’s weather and natural resources and sought to exploit it to the fullest extent.

One such businessman was Henry Sanford, who was one of the first land developers in the State of Florida. He bought up land in the central Florida area at the mouth of the St. Johns River near present day Sanford. His plan was to build a Catholic farming community.

Henry SanfordIt’s not that he was a pious man. He had bought a surplus of land he wanted to unload at a huge profit. He split the land into 10 acre plots and marketed it as St. Joseph’s. His plan was to sell them to German immigrants seeking a new start in America. He printed pamphlets that made Florida sound like a promised land with a warm climate that supported year-round planting in fertile soil.  

In the end, Sanford’s idea wasn’t very popular, and only a handful of families bought land and began farming. They eagerly made the dangerous trek to Florida by covered wagons to build their dreams, but it wasn’t long until these German pioneers began fighting an uphill battle against Florida.

First was the heat. Heat in Florida isn’t so much searing as it is stifling. Summer temperatures hover in the middle nineties, but the humidity makes it feel at least 10 to 20 degrees hotter than that. Sweat pours off a person in sheets. If there’s a breeze, it’s at best tolerable. But if the air is still, a cloud of heat hangs around your body like a presence. The New Americans had never felt heat like this.

Before they could even build their farms, though, they first needed to clear land. Cutting through virgin pines, oaks, and palmettos with late 19th Century tools was slow going. Progress was measured in inches at times, but eventually land was cleared, homes were built, and the business of farming began.

Neither Sanford nor the immigrants knew it, but the community was doomed from the start. Mosquitoes – which some call the Florida state bird - are ever percolating in the still waters of Florida. After a year or so, the mosquitoes brought a deadly disease to their doorsteps that would put an end to St. Joseph’s.

Southerners, and Floridians in particular, lived in mortal fear of mosquito-borne yellow fever. Back then, no one really understood the disease. It was a commonly held belief that it was spread through the air. During outbreaks, many people would move to the coastal cities, thinking the air would be purer there. But even those who lived on the coast couldn’t escape yellow fever. It had a high mortality rate, and it was known to wipe entire communities off the map.

In 1886 or 1887, a family of four, whose names are now lost to history, lost one child, then the other to yellow fever. Soon the parents died as well, all before the priest could arrive from Tampa to give them their Last Rites. They were all hastily buried on their land, and the remaining pioneers abandoned their homesteads in fear of the disease and promptly left the state.

The Haunting Begins

Unexplained activity surrounds the little family plot.

Their farms lay vacant until the early 20th century when others again tried to successfully make a living farming. In 1905, a man named Albert Hawkins bought the dead settlers’ land, built a home for himself and his family, and began farming.  

He hadn’t noticed when he’d bought the land, but he found in the corner of one field on the banks of the St. Johns River four wooden crosses surrounded by a rusty barbed wire fence. Being a respectful man, he replaced the fence and began maintaining the little cemetery. He was careful to always plow around the plot. Hawkins was so adamant that respect be shown to those graves that he told his children, grandchildren, and anyone who would listen to be sure to show respect for the dead and stay away from the cemetery.

Not everyone listened, and weird things started to happen.

First, a neighbor tore down the barbed wire fence that surrounded the cemetery. Ironically, lightning struck his house that very day and it burned to the ground.

Other neighbors who lived near the field complained of strange things happening in their homes. Their children’s toys moved on their own, as if a child was playing with them, but there was no one there. Rocking chairs rocked on their own, even in enclosed rooms with no drafts.

 In the 1950’s, a friend of Mr. Hawkins’ grandson thought it would be fun to kick over the wooden crosses and maybe dig up some bones. The next day as he was walking through town, he was struck by a car and died instantly. The driver was never identified, and witnesses to the accident - lifelong residents of Sanford – didn’t recognize the car.

What to Know More?

You can read more about the mystery of I-4 and many other weird places and stories in the book “Weird Florida,” by Charlie Carlson.

Concerned that much of Florida and its history was being gobbled up by development, Charlie Carlson researched and collected the strange and downright weird stories of Florida and put them in his book. But he didn’t have to go far to tell the tale of the Dead Zone.

Charlie Carlson has a personal connection to the haunting of I-4. His grandfather was Albert Hawkins, that old farmer who tended the graves for so many years.

Carlson remembers his grandfather warning him and his friends to never go near the graves. It’s Charlie’s friend who disobeyed, kicked a cross over, and was killed by that hit-and-run driver the very next day.

The Field of the Dead becomes I-4

The family is forgotten as progress comes to Florida.

I4 Dead Zone AccidentWeird apparitions had been spotted in that field, weirder things were experience by neighbors, and nothing good came to those who desecrated that sacred spot. With the unexplained phenomena and now a death, locals began calling the land that contained the four graves the “Field of the Dead” and stayed away.

In the late 50’s and early 60’s, Florida’s popularity as a vacation destination reached its peak. Tourists came for the alligators, beaches, and the warm weather. Florida’s roads were inadequate, both in quality and in quantity. Developers came to Florida again to construct interstates that would crisscross the state to funnel people to and from the coasts. I-4 was slated to connect Tampa and Daytona Beach. It would be going through Sanford, and right through the Field of the Dead.

In 1959, the land was taken by imminent domain. During the transaction, Albert Hawkins warned FDOT there was a little cemetery on his property that needed to be moved before construction began. The officials assured him they’d take care of everything and move the graves and reinter them at a nearby cemetery.

Either through neglect or oversight, the immigrant family was never dug up and buried elsewhere. Building began on September 10th, 1960, by dumping dirt right on top of the graves to construct the bridge that would span the St. John’s River.

FDOT didn’t know it, but destruction was about to befall those who disturbed the little family’s final resting place.

Gulf of Mexico HurricaneOut in the Gulf of Mexico, a massive hurricane named Donna was brewing. It was well away from the coast of Florida and on its way to Louisiana. Only the Gulf Coast of Florida might experience choppy waves, if that. The meteorologists, using their most up-to-date technology at the time, had predicted it to happen just that way. There was no reason to believe anything different.

But suddenly at the last minute Donna took a sharp right turn and took aim right at the coast. She headed straight to Sanford, right where they had begun construction on I-4 over the Field of the Dead.  In fact, it hit the very day the first bucket of dirt was dropped on the cemetery. Donna ripped across Florida, taking the same path as the proposed I-4 corridor. The construction site was so damaged, it was months before building could even resume.

In a few years, I-4 was completed, but then strange things started happening. Motorists began reporting seeing glowing orbs, and in some instances full-bodied apparitions when they would cross the bridge that was built over the graves.

A Tale from the I-4 Dead Zone:

In the early 1990’s, a young woman named Christine Torioni was on her way to see friends in Daytona. Not far from the Dead Zone, her car overheated and she broke down on the side of the road. In the age before cell phones, she had no choice but to get out and walk to the next exit to use a pay phone to call for help.

Being young, alone, and walking on the side of the interstate made her understandably nervous. As she was crossing the bridge, a nice looking man in a brand new semi stopped, addressed her by her first name, and asked if she needed a ride to the next exit. She never hitchhiked, but she felt somehow comforted by the nice man and his shiny, brand new truck. She climbed in and they struck up a conversation, talking about nothing in particular. 

When they reached the next exit, he pulled into a gas station. She thanked him, stepped out of the rig, and began walking towards the pay phone. She had only taken a few steps, though, and she noticed that she no longer heard the deep rumble of the truck’s engine. She turned to wave goodbye to the driver, only to find the brand new semi truck wasn’t there at all. Looking around, she saw a man sitting on a bench behind where the truck had been moments before. She asked him where the semi went. He looked at her confused and replied he’d been sitting there all morning and no semis had pulled into the station.

Read Christine Torioni's Complete Account:

Weird Hauntings - True Tales Of Ghostly Places

The Dead Zone Earns its Name

Accidents, Death, and weird sightings become the norm.

Others saw nothing, but heard plenty. When crossing the bridge, radios would become staticky. Some swore they heard unearthly voices over the hiss.

Those things are something that could be explained easily, though. Alcohol, fatigue, and wild imaginations can play tricks on the mind, making a person see and hear things that aren’t there.

Within a few years, locals and the highway patrol began noticing a pattern. There were an inordinate number of accidents, many of them fatal, on that quarter mile stretch of highway that spanned the St. Johns River. Curious locals dug through accidents report and found there had been a fatal accident the very day the road was opened to traffic.

It’s a fact that since I-4 opened in 1963, more than 2,000 accidents have occurred in that quarter mile stretch. It’s killed so many people, it’s become known as “the Dead Zone.” Ironically, the accidents don’t seem to be attributable to the roadway. The highway there is flat, there’s nothing that can obstruct a driver’s view, but yet accidents continue to happen.

That alone is freaky, but there’s more to the mystery of I-4.

In 2004, I-4 was due for repairs, and construction began on that stretch of road right over the graves. And, just like Donna had 40 years before, Hurricane Charley took an unexpected right turn and hit the construction site. In fact, the eye went right over the Dead Zone. It even took the same path Donna did and went right up the I-4 corridor.

Video: A News Report on the Dead Zone

Do you Believe in the Dead Zone?

So is I-4 Really Haunted?

Skeptics and believers can both agree weird things happen there.

Coincidence? Something otherworldly ? Either way, a lot of locals won’t even cross that bridge. They’ll go out of their way to take secondary roads to avoid I-4.

I’m a native Floridian, and have traversed the Dead Zone a time or two, but I had no clue I was driving over a family of four. Though nothing out of the ordinary happened to me, there seems to be no end of credible individuals who have encountered something odd, even to my logical mind.

Whether it’s ghosts, folklore, or a natural phenomenon, the I-4 Dead Zone has given a little pioneer family something that most of us spend a lifetime to achieve – notoriety.

More Books about Florida Ghosts:

Haunted Florida: Ghosts and Strange Phenomena of the Sunshine State (Haunted Series)

Florida's sunny climate and tourist attractions draw plenty of visitors--some of whom never leave. This compilation of supernatural tales shows Florida to be a state rife with e...

View on Amazon

Haunted Florida: The Haunted Locations of Orlando and Walt Disney World

This guide offers information on the haunted locations of Orlando and Walt Disney World, Florida. Each location includes information on its history, and the ghost(s) believed to...

View on Amazon

Florida's Ghostly Legends And Haunted Folklore: Volume One: South And Central Florida

Haunting ancient cemeteries and primitive landmarks as well as modern highway sides, ghosts and restless spirits abound. Here is a delightful?and somewhat spooky?look into the d...

View on Amazon

Ghosthunting Florida (America's Haunted Road Trip)

Discover the scariest spots in the Sunshine State. Author Dave Lapham visits more than 30 legendary haunted places, all of which are open to the public so visitors can test thei...

View on Amazon

The Florida Road Guide to Haunted Locations

Your road guide for finding haunted bed & breakfasts, bridges, cemeteries, churches, dolls, forts, historic homes, hospitals, hotels, inns, jails, lighthouses, mansions, museums...

View on Amazon

Ghosts of Key West: The Haunted Locations of Key West, Florida

This guide offers information on the haunted locations of Key West, Florida. Each location includes information on its history, and the spirit(s) believed to haunt the property.

View on Amazon

Updated: 12/13/2016, AbbyFitz
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CruiseReady on 05/19/2015

Hmmm... I've driven that stretch more times than I can count, and have never noticed anything out of the ordinary. But the unusual accident rate. plus the paths of Donna and Charley (both of whom I remember) certainly do make one wonder. I'll be sure to take note next time i drive that way!

AbbyFitz on 01/02/2015

No. Alligator Aaley is a part of I 75 that runs through the Everglades. Plenty of gators but no ghosts!

LindaSmith1 on 01/02/2015

Is this the same as Alligator Alley?

AbbyFitz on 12/09/2014

Me too!

dustytoes on 12/09/2014

There are no "good roads" left in central Florida. They have all been turned into 4 lane highways to accommodate the people. Each time I go back to visit my son I barely recognize the area. It's a shame. But there are still some very nice areas in Florida that only us locals know about ;) or care to visit. When I see Mickey Mouse I shiver... hahaha...

AbbyFitz on 12/09/2014

It is horrible down there! I'm just antisocial I guess, I can't stand all the people. They bug me!
I wonder what the accident rate is on 95 down there as well. It should be just as congested. I'm glad you like the northeast and the lack of tourists there!

dustytoes on 12/09/2014

I lived in that area of Florida for almost 30 years. I lived just north of Sanford, in Deltona, where my son still lives. In fact he works in Sanford as a firefighter. I don't remember hearing these ghost stories, but I do know that I4 is a horrible road for accidents and heavy traffic. We used to avoid it as much as possible for those reasons.
Your story is so well written Abby, and I really enjoyed it. I think personally that the reason for all the deaths is the huge influx of people to the state. It's bursting at the seams with new residents and tourists. It's one of the reasons I moved out!

AbbyFitz on 12/08/2014

I agree it's best to look at things logically and formulate opinions based in fact. It's odd at best and sinister at worst there on the highway

frankbeswick on 12/08/2014

The phenomenological approach requires that we objectively document phenomena without passing judgment and only then begin to formulate hypotheses. This is not methodological skepticism, but suspending of judgment. But something odd and nasty is going on. Getting the place blessed might be useful.

AbbyFitz on 12/08/2014

Even if you don't believe in any of it, there's no denying a out of accidents seem to happen there for no good reason. Thanks for reading!

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