Not far from the tourist capital of Orlando, Florida where the fairytale castles of Disney enchant hearts young and old, and the racing roller coasters of Universal’s Islands of Adventures leave riders white knuckled with exhilaration, lies a quarter mile stretch of interstate called the Dead Zone. Along the palm tree bordered stretches of asphalt, there seems to be a mystery afoot.
Let me state right here that I have Charlie Carlson’s Weird Florida to thank for much of the following information, as well as numerous internet sites and Orlando’s CBS 6 News Channel. For those of you interested in the unusual, I highly recommend Mr. Carlson’s book and his PBS special on Weird Florida.
Back in the 1800’s there were few inhabitants of Florida. It wasn’t the vacationers’ dream that it is today. There was no air conditioning for one (an automatic deal-breaker for me!), hostile natives inhabited the land, there were no roads cutting through the thick snake-and-alligator-riddled bush, and diseases like yellow fever and malaria were spread via the omnipresent mosquitoes.
Back in 1880, Henry Sanford was the owner of a huge land grant in what is now Seminole County. In order to lure people to the area, he parceled off ten acre tracts of land and marketed to the Catholic immigrants from Germany. He established a community called St. Joseph’s Colony. Instead of the hoards of Catholics Mr. Sanford had envisioned, only four families bought into the idea and moved to the area. Life in the humid heat of Florida was hard, but the devout little colony stuck it out until 1887 when disaster struck in the form of a yellow fever epidemic.
Tragically, the close-knit community lost an entire family of four to the disease. The timing couldn’t have been worse. Depending on which story you read, the community head, Father Swembergh was either dead of the fever himself or across the state in Tampa, tending to the ill in that community. Either way, he ended up perishing from the same malady. There was no one to read the last rites to the little family as they died, one by one. There was no one to read a mass at their funeral. For that matter, the remaining settlers were so paranoid about catching the dreaded disease themselves, that they buried the bodies hastily in the woods without any proper religious ceremony.
Many years passed and St. Joseph Colony eventually was swallowed up by the bigger town of Lake Monroe. The tracts of land that the Catholics had owned were cleared and became farmland, but the little family graveyard was maintained respectfully in the middle of the fields. Owners of the land changed, the fields were leased to different farmers, but still the burial plots were undisturbed. It seemed that a local legend had been established that if the graves were disturbed, calamity would befall the culprits. Was it coincidence that the tract owner’s house caught fire shortly after he removed the rotted wood grave markers from the plots? Perhaps, but the owner, Albert Hawkins, wasn’t taking any chances. He speedily erected replacement markers. A farmer who leased the land removed a rusty wire fence from the graveyard and his house also caught fire. The local legend was firmly entrenched.
No one upset the burial ground any further until 1959 when the government came in and bought up a large swatch of land on which to pave the path of Interstate 4, the connecting highway between Tampa and Daytona. Surveyors took special care to mark the graves for relocating and the construction crew promptly disregarded such niceties. No one even knew the name of the family any longer. Why make such a fuss about moving such ancient remains?
By September 1960, the construction crew started filling in the planned route for the highway with extra dirt to make the ground level for paving. About the same time, a powerful Category 4 storm, Hurricane Donna was railroading its way across the southern tip of the state, down by the Keys. The storm emerged into the Gulf of Mexico travelling northwest, and by the meteorologists’ reckonings, was expected to continue its way across the Gulf leaving Florida behind. But on the same day that the first dump truck dropped its load of fill dirt on top of those neglected graves, Donna exercised her feminine prerogative and changed her mind. The storm made a sharp turn back into Florida and coincidentally took the very path planned for the burgeoning Interstate 4. It is said that the eye of the storm was centered over the area where the graves were located right at midnight on the night of September 10th. By the time Donna exited the state by Daytona and continued north into the Atlantic, the track planned for I-4 was devastated. It took a month for work to begin once more.
According to Mr. Carlson in Weird Florida, on the very day that the new I-4 stretch was opened to traffic, a semi-trailer jackknifed right on the spot above the graves. It was the start of something menacing. According to News Channel 6, in the nearly 40 years since opening there have been upwards of 2,000 accidents on this little quarter mile stretch of road just at the south end of the bridge spanning the St. Johns River in Seminole County. Many have included fatalities. People have reported seeing apparitions crossing the highway at that point, causing them to swerve and wreck or almost wreck. Others have seen balls of light darting among the cars. Still others have heard strange voices interfering in their cell phone conversations as they drove through the area.
It seems the nameless immigrants who were so disrespected in their death are not taking the outrage lying down. If you are travelling that stretch of road, it might be a good idea to pay particularly close attention to your driving for that quarter of a mile. Just in case. And say a little prayer for the forgotten, un-mourned family whose bodies lay just feel below your speeding tires.
For the Orlando CBS 6 News Cast on the Dead Zone located on YouTube follow the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3UAqSkI4swk.
For the link to Charlie Carlson’s Weird Florida PBS Special, click here: http://www.weirdfloridatv.org/.