‘The Dead Zone:’ This stretch of I-4 ranks among most haunted roadways

Stretch of I-4 near St. Johns River built over grave plot, author says

SANFORD, Fla. – In the spirit of Halloween, RV Trader released its list of the “most haunted roads in the U.S.,” featuring roadways from the western, midwestern, northeastern and southern parts of the country.

As part of the list, RV Trader included Interstate 4 in Sanford, which connects Tampa to Daytona Beach.

According to Charlie Carlson — a Sanford-born historian and author of “Weird Florida” — this quarter-mile stretch of I-4 is known as “The Dead Zone” and can be found along the southern part of the interstate bridge across the St. Johns River.

Area of the Interstate 4 "Dead Zone" (Copyright 2023 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

“People are claiming to see all kinds of things — orbs floating across the highway, apparitions on the side of the road hitchhiking, phantom trucks, you name it,” Carlson explained.

He said that the legends stem back to the late 1800s, when Henry Sanford, head of the Florida Land and Colonization Company, planned to start up a Roman-Catholic community called Saint Joseph’s Colony.

However, an outbreak of yellow fever killed four German immigrants in the colony, and with the only priest being away in Tampa at the time (he later succumbed to yellow fever himself), the bodies were buried in the woods with no last rites, Carlson states.

Historic maps of St. Joseph's Colony (left) and the Orange Belt Railway (right) in Florida (Sanford Museum)

“It is two adults and two children buried on the very spot that has been shrouded in mystery,” News 6 investigator Mike Holfeld said.

According to Carlson’s book, the land was eventually bought by Albert Hawkins (Carlson’s grandfather) in 1905, though the names at the burial plot had been lost by that time. Reportedly, Hawkins warned other farmers not to tamper with the plot, though after he himself removed a nearly-rotted wooden marker, his house burned down.

Decades later, the land was purchased by the government to help build Interstate 4, though the nameless graves were never moved, and so the highway was built atop the remains, Carlson said.

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“They are still there,” Carlson said. “In fact, when I-4 came through in 1960, the graves were roped off and marked for removal, but they never removed the graves. Instead, they dumped fill dirt on top to elevate the new highway.”

Since then, the site was struck by Hurricane Donna (the storm’s eye supposedly moved directly over the graves), a tractor-trailer truck carrying frozen shrimp jackknifed right above the graves on the opening day of Interstate 4, and some have claimed to see “wispy balls of light that zigzag just above the pavement,” Carlson notes.

“There have been more accidents per year in such a small quarter-mile section of highway than all the other sections of highway between Daytona and Tampa,” Carlson explained.

Photograph of crash scene at Interstate 4 "Dead Zone" (Copyright 2023 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

Appropriately enough, “The Dead Zone” is also known for its lack of cell reception.

“There are people who have highlighted cell phone service loss, the static, electronics malfunctioning, mysterious orbs of light appearing,” said Gillian Luce, the director for consumer marketing at Trader Interactive, which helped put together the ranking.

Luce said that the company puts together a ranking each year based on suggestions from audience members online.

“A lot of folks on RV Trader’s team are really big fans, and they love all of the spooky seasons,” Luce said. “I myself am what you would call a little bit of a scaredy-cat, so I don’t know that I would visit it. Whether it’s spooky or haunted or otherwise, these stories are enough to keep me safe at home.”

News 6 reached out to the Florida Department of Transportation for more information on the number of crashes in the Dead Zone. FDOT responded on Oct. 30 with the following statement.

Thank you for reaching out to the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) with this inquiry about Interstate 4 (I-4) south of the St. Johns River Bridge.

This stretch of interstate highway has not seen an unusually high number of crashes. Our staff pulled the crash numbers for I-4 between Orange Boulevard and U.S. 17-92 and they fall within a normal range.

When studying the safety of a stretch of I-4, every segment has unique characteristics. It would be difficult to conduct an apples-to-apples comparison with other sections of I-4 because of those varying characteristics.

We could send you actual crash data if that would be helpful. But, again, there wouldn’t be anything to compare it to that’s a statistically valid comparison.

While the crash data numbers are considered average for this section of I-4, the Department is always monitoring its roadways and safety is FDOT’s No. 1 priority. Staff will continue to watch this roadway and look for opportunities to improve both safety and mobility – not just along this section of I-4, but throughout the Central Florida region.

FDOT District Five Public Information Director Cindi Lane

RV Trader invites viewers to submit their own spooky stories for next year’s ranking by emailing marketing@rvtrader.com or visiting the website’s Facebook page here.

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About the Author:

Anthony, a graduate of the University of Florida, joined ClickOrlando.com in April 2022.