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This stretch of highway in Central Florida is believed to be haunted by ghosts of settlers whose graves were desecrated.

Google Earth screenshot of the I-4 Dead Zone area.

There are a lot of things people find scary about driving on I-4 that have nothing to do with ghosts or curses. A study published in early 2024 using data compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that Florida's Interstate 4 was not only the most dangerous highway in state, but in the United States.

Florida residents like me understand and are more or less resigned to the fact that getting on I-4 means you're going to be subjected to lots of traffic and terrible drivers in the immediate future. Interstate 4 is a stretch of crap-road in Central Florida that runs from Daytona Beach on the east coast to Tampa on the west coast. It's also the primary route of travel for people that are going to Disney World, Universal, and SeaWorld. In the middle of this 132-mile interstate is a quarter mile area known as the I-4 Dead Zone.

​Unlike most areas that are called a "dead zone" this one isn't referring to a sudden loss in cell service but rather an area of the road where you are literally exponentially more likely to die. The I-4 Dead Zone is known as one of the most haunted highways in America, as well as one of the most deadly. Specifically, this ominous part of the interstate passes over Lake Monroe in Sanford, Florida, just north of Orlando.

Historic maps of the St. Joseph's Colony plat (left) and the Orange Belt Railway (right) | Photo source: Sanford Museum

Real estate tycoon Henry Sanford (for which the town of Sanford got its name) began to market the southern shore of the lake to new immigrants and potential citrus farmers in the 1880s. In 1886, the Jacksonville, Tampa, and Key West Railway (JT&KW) completed a bridge over the St. Johns River just north of Lake Monroe. This newly built railroad station made the area more appealing and accessible than it had been previously. Later that same year the Orange Belt Railway connected to the JT&KW near the bridge, and Monroe Station was built at the junction. Both the JT&KW and Orange Belt continued from Monroe Station toward Sanford.

Father Felix P. Swembergh | Photo source: St. James Cathedral of Orlando

A community called St. Joseph's Colony was platted on 640 acres near Monroe Station. The development, promoted by Henry Sanford's Florida Land and Colonization Company, was advertised to German immigrants as a Roman Catholic community. A lot in the budding town was set aside for a Catholic chapel, and German Roman Catholic priest, Felix Prosper Swembergh, was recruited by Sanford to oversee the colony.

This all sounds real great until you remember that summer in Florida is excruciatingly hot (especially inland without the benefit of the sea breeze), humid, and generally gross. The conditions were difficult for everyone except the gators and mosquitoes, and rampant disease hampered any chance of success for the colony. A particularly devastating outbreak of Yellow Fever in 1887 sealed the fate of St Joseph’s colony.

The viral infection Yellow Fever is part of the group of hemorrhagic fevers and is transmitted by mosquitoes in tropical and subtropical climates. Most cases only cause a mild infection with fever, headache, chills, back pain, fatigue, loss of appetite, muscle pain, nausea, and vomiting. In 15% of cases, however, people enter a second, toxic phase of the disease with a recurring fever, this time accompanied by jaundice due to liver damage, as well as abdominal pain. Along with these symptoms is the hemorrhagic part of the disease where patients experience bleeding in the mouth, nose, the eyes, and the gastrointestinal tract that causes vomit containing blood, also known as "black vomit."

This outbreak in 1887 claimed the lives of all four members of one of the immigrant families that had settled in the new St. Jospeh’s Colony. There was a great amount of fear in the community that the other members might contract the deadly virus, so they brought the four bodies of the family into the woods and burned them. Father Swembergh had gone to Tampa to aid a fellow priest and minister to Yellow Fever victims there. Unfortunately, three days after arriving in Tampa, he also contracted Yellow Fever and succumbed to the disease. With the priest dead, there wasn't anyone who could perform the last rites to the family of four who had died, and they were subsequently buried without any ceremony.

Cabbage palmetto lining the shore of Lake Monroe (circa 1882) | Photo Source: State Library and Archives of Florida

By 1890, the St. Joseph’s Catholic Colony had developed into a rural town called Lake Monroe. A man named D. V. Warren bought the land north of the railroad and cleared the land for farming, though he wisely made sure to leave the small cemetery untouched. By that time, the final resting place of the four family members looked like an overgrown island in the middle of cultivated farmland. Over time, the names on the four wooden grave markers were worn away by nature and in 1905 the land was sold to Albert S. Hawkins.

Hawkins leased the land to other farmers but expressed that they not disturb the burial site. One of the farmers failed to heed this warning and attempted to remove the wire fence that was around the graves. This farmer's house mysteriously burned down that exact same day.

This incident almost seems like a nod to the Chesterton’s Fence principle which emphasizes that one should not tear down a fence without knowing why it was put up in the first place. Upon coming across a seemingly random fence, the rash move would be to tear it down without understanding why it was erected. Change should not be made until the reasoning behind the current state of affairs is understood. However, G. K. Chesterton would not publish his book until 1929, and the farmers around this area of modern-day Sanford would continue to reap the consequences of messing around with a gravesite that should have absolutely been left alone.

Hawkins himself had a home located at the edge of the field. His home met a similar fate to the other farmer's, burning to the ground after he had tried removing the rotting wooden markers for the graves. His wife was convinced that the fire was caused by him tampering with the gravesite and he immediately replaced the markers, presumably to avoid any further retaliation from any spirits.

Postcard image of Lake Monroe (circa 1912).

It seemed the damage was done, however, and after the Hawkins family's new house was built, they began experiencing strange activity. The activity in their new home seemed to focus on the children's toys; a small rocking chair would begin rocking all by itself and several toys would move on their own. Neighbors in the area would report seeing strange lights around the gravesite at night, leading the locals to give the area the nickname "Field of the Dead."

The area's reputation was only strengthened in the 1950s, when a young boy was messing with the graves. The following night, this boy was hit and killed by a drunk driver. The driver responsible for the accident was never identified or caught.

The government bought the land near Lake Monroe in 1959 with the intention of constructing an east-west highway that would be designated Interstate 4. The only stipulation in the sale of the land was that they were required to relocate the four graves to a nearby cemetery. The graves were initially marked for relocation to a cemetery in Tampa but when the time came to move the family's graves, the state of Florida faced another more daunting priority; Hurricane Donna.

The construction of I-4 in downtown Orlando, 1957 | Photo Source: 'Reflections on the urban past and public history' by Yuri Gama, UMass Amherst Department of History, published May 31, 2016

The category 4 hurricane made landfall in the Florida Keys early on September 10 with winds of 145 mph and proceeded to parallel the southwest coast before making an abrupt northeastern turn. Hurricane Donna cut back across the state before reemerging into the Atlantic and continuing northward, but not before decimating much of Central Florida. Strangely enough, Donna's deadly path paralleled the surveyed route of the new interstate. The eye of the storm passed directly over the graves around midnight on September 11, 1960. Hurricane Donna was the worst storm experienced by Central Florida in generations and it stalled highway construction for nearly a month.

The path of Hurricane Donna in 1960 | Source: Harm’s Way storm stories

Eager to resume construction after the tragic and unexpected impact of Hurricane Donna, the old graves were all but forgotten. Many of the workers were skeptical of the superstitions about the graves and instead of being relocated, they were covered with fill dirt to elevate the new highway and the project continued as planned without any further thoughts about old graves and curses. The following years would show that this oversight was probably a huge mistake on more than just a moral level.

On the first day that I-4 was opened to traffic, a tractor-trailer hauling a load of frozen shrimp became the first casualty when it mysteriously lost control and jackknifed right above the graves. This began a strange and deadly trend of accidents and weird occurrences at the former site of St. Joseph’s Colony.


The actual location of the family's gravesite sits underneath one of the eastbound lanes of I-4 just before the south end of the St. Johns River Bridge. This quarter mile stretch of road that passes just above where the family's graves are still located is the site of more accidents and deaths than the remaining 132 miles of interstate combined. This section of I-4 is so prone to deadly car accidents that it has been given the morbid moniker "I-4 Dead Zone."

Drivers taking I-4 over Lake Monroe have reported strange interference on their radios and long haul truckers have claimed that their CB radios will suddenly blast with static while driving over this specific stretch of highway.

In recent accounts, people claim that their cell phones will not work in this area and suddenly lose service, in the fashion of a more well-known interpretation of a highway dead zone. Several people have also reported seeing ghostly apparitions on the road as well as encountering wispy balls of light that zig zag just above the pavement at night.

It's often reported by drivers traveling this part of I-4 that they will suddenly be struck with intense waves of disorientation in this area and will sometimes be overwhelmed by an urge to jerk their steering wheels to the side and propel themselves off the side of the bridge – indeed, this has been the end result of several of the accidents in the "Dead Zone." Is it the curse of the I-4 Dead Zone? Is it just Florida drivers? Are Florida drivers the real curse?

While many will be inclined to chalk these stories up to peoples’ imaginations gone wild rather than a curse, the disproportionate number of accidents, deaths, and strange occurrences on this small stretch of highway is difficult to disregard as mere coincidence. Many will swear there’s something sinister at work here, and it may be caused by an eerie secret just beneath the asphalt.

Google Earth street view of the I-4 Dead Zone from 2024.

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