“He was wearing odd cloths, kind of tattered and certainly out of style…He wore a round hat with a wide brim, like the actor on Little House on the prairie…But the thing I remember the most was his color…He looked as if a bluish light was being shinned on him, and when I passed him, I looked back and would you believe it? He was gone!
“Pete” Florida Trucker
If you live in central Florida, as I did for many years, you most likely know of Interstate 4, and have most likely have driven on it on many occasions. You might be one of those people who curse and swear every time you’re dead-locked in traffic that seems to get nowhere, or perhaps you’re the type who takes advantage of reading your emails or text the time away during the wait, but one thing is for sure — You probably don’t know this highway as much as you think you do. I-4 is the main highway running from the Tampa Bay area to Daytona Beach, and will take you to every exit leading to every city and township in Central Florida, from Polk County, to the bustling city of Orlando. Indeed, I-4 can certainly be a benefit for Florida’s travelers and visitors.
Although this road is important for central Florida’s means for east to west transportation, it was in fact designed to support a modest population, and not the multitudes it serves today. In the past 20 years there has been a slight boom in central Florida’s growth, estimating at least triple the number of people since the 1960s when Walt Disney offered Florida the breath of life to the job force, the tourism trade and commerce here, even growing new towns and cities in the process. I-4 is a wonderful thing for all Floridians and the thousands of visitors that come here every year, but we must take a moment and think about what was here before the days of these modern roads and businesses.
Many of the people I have interviewed over the past few years, especially in Orlando, can reminisce of the old days of central Florida’s quaint past. They have related to me of how Orlando was once a small series of dirt roads and orange groves. Many of the older people I have spoken with have a less than friendly attitude toward the vacation wonder that is Walt Disney World. Many feel that central Florida was compromised to big business via Walt Disney’s dream, which took away the very small-town essence Orlando and the other near-by cities once had. Among the small towns that have either grown to metropolis cities like Orlando and Tampa, or have just vanished into obscurity, the Florida of the past is just that — The past.
Unfortunately, when a city or township dries up and its inhabitants move on, or when progress runs through that small town and its surroundings, that progress might be covering up or even destroying the remains of the most personal part of a small town. In one such township of our pioneer past, the remains of a small colony, then a farmhouse and a tiny grave in its back yard was obliterated and completely covered by the progress of I-4s construction. Indeed, near the Saint Johns River, one such family, a father, a mother and two children, died of yellow fever, and were buried behind their log cabin in a small plot laying under a camphor tree, surrounded by a rustic wooden gate. This family was one of about four families who settled near the St. Johns River in November of 1886 as part of a religious colony. Its material remains, as well as its very legacy, the lives and the graves from this small colony are gone now. Yet, something is said to remain there — Something not quite right.
“An original church used by the settlement, circa 1884”
“Another Swedish settlement similar to the St. John’s Colony, circa 1884”
In the early 19th century, the Department of Agriculture and the Governor of Florida formed the ‘Florida Land and Colonization Company.’ This government agency was created to establish populations and commerce in all areas of the then barren and woodland tundra of old Florida. In this case, by the late 1800s, the FL. C.C. offered a beautiful spot of land for colonization and the Roman Catholic Church was offered the land after a series of ballads were conducted. The church was of course delighted with the homesteading offer and immediately began designing the blueprints for what would become Saint Joseph’s Colony. Father Felix Prosper Swembergh, was designated to reverend and guide his new flock at St. Joseph’s Colony and began the task of surviving and administering God’s word to all in this new found wilderness. Father Swembergh was soon called to Tampa however, to assist those stricken by a yellow fever outbreak, and sadly, after only a short time on the west coast, Father Swembergh himself contracted the deadly sickness and died within a few weeks. As ill fate would have it, the yellow fever epidemic soon came to St. Joseph’s Colony, killing four people, and an entire family in a matter of days. As Father Swembergh was dead, there was no one to give the last rites to the stricken, and the four victims were quickly buried without any formal ceremony. No family gatherings and no absolution — A sad farewell indeed.
The Seminole County Historical Archives have little other history from that point on regarding the colony and its survivors, but it is assumed that the colony disbanded, with the remaining colonists fleeing back to the northern states. The land the colony had originally sat upon ultimately became the township of Lake Monroe, and by the early 1900s, a farmer by the name of Al Hawkins, his wife and family bought a large portion of the colony’s land. Quickly, the farmer started clearing the now overgrown fields of the old colony for orange groves and celery fields. While clearing the dead center of the field, the farmer found four small graves, evident by four small rotting wood crosses, eerily reaching out of the tall weeds and thickets. Weathered and falling apart, the wooden markers meant honor to the farmer, and respectfully decided to do his farming around the graves instead of plowing over them. “The Field of the Dead” as it became known, remained in its peaceful spot for years, until the farmer died in 1939.
“Land where farmer Hawkins made his home, circa 1914″
By the 1950s, the field began to get overgrown again, returning to its original form, returning to weed and obscurity. Although the farmer’s widow continued to live on the land until the 1960s, Florida’s government wished to purchase a great portion of land by the St. Johns River for the creation of a “super highway.” Now being quite elderly, the farmer’s wife decided to sell her property and move away to be closer to her children in another state. She was assured that her land would benefit Florida’s growth, especially with the promise of a great architectural feat being purposed by a man named Walt Disney, a man who built a wonderful amusement park called Disneyland in California. The land she sold was for the construction of Interstate-4, the very road that would usher in hundreds, if not thousands into central Florida, making this site the family entertainment capitol of the United States and even the world. Because this all sounded so wonderful, where her land would help so many in the state she spent so many years in, it felt like the right thing to do — Or so everyone thought. Though the existence of the tiny cemetery was properly shown to the state engineers and land surveyors, they decided that because the graves were so old and decayed, and because there were no living family alive to speak up for the remains, the surveyors felt it was best, as well as beneficial to construction and time issues to ignore the graves and build over them. After all, as one engineer was believed to have said, “It’s not an ancient Indian burial ground, they’re just a few old bones.” Needless to say, it was this caviler attitude that would ultimately prove incorrect over the years and even to this day. According to the legend, the very day the road engineers began plowing over the graves, filling them with dirt in order to elevate the land for construction, one of Florida’s most deadly Hurricanes crossed the state. A name that may still strike fear into the minds of those who survived it, Hurricane Donna caused millions of dollars in damage to many areas of central Florida, and was responsible for many lives lost, not to mention the disruption of further road construction for several months afterwards. Some believe that when the surveyors disrupted the graves, a bad omen took place; the hurricane and the curse of I-4 had begun.
“A section of the land which was used as a celery field, and then a cemetery, circa 1932”
The colony, the log cabin and then the farm and its celery fields have since rotted away, the trees and scrubs and the once manicured land is all gone. The one thing that stands in its place is Interstate 4 and the roar of cars and trucks speeding by. The march of progress continues over this once pioneer’s homestead and the remains of the unfortunate family that once lived there. It is on this spot, where the family is said to rest, and where strange things take place. Tales of pioneer ghosts standing by the busy highway at night, ghostly voices coming over radios, CBs and cell phones and radio stations going dead while crossing the grave site are just some of the oddities that take place on Central Florida’s haunted highway — The pioneer ghosts of I-4!
Shadowy pioneers of ages past, and dark spectres that play with Florida drivers
The first time I heard of this haunted site was while paging through the Internet. There, I found a web page called Charlie Carlson’s Strange Florida. It was here that I first encountered the legend of the cursed Interstate-4, which Mr. Carlson refers to as the “Dead Zone.” The particular part of the alleged haunted road is located toward the southern end of a bridge, which crosses over the St. Johns River in Seminole County, just west of the city of Sanford. This section of road and bridge has been dubbed the “Dead Zone” because the primary events are the failing of electrical equipment, such as radios and other communication devices when passing the bridge. And, because this area of road only covers roughly one-quarter of a mile or so in length, it remains a complete mystery.
This mystery has baffled many because there are no radio or cell phone antennas nearby, nor any microwave emitters from local weather or television stations in the area, so logical explanations are hard to find for these electrical disruptions. There are also an unusually high number of traffic accidents on this section of road, accidents that are well recorded with the Florida Highway Patrol. Although the traffic accidents and fatalities are bad enough, many people have claimed that other strange and sometimes frightening events have taken place while crossing this section of road. One of the most common complaints are that cell phones will sometimes cease to function properly when crossing the bridge, as well as car radios going static, or going silent all together. Although not sounding too frightening or fanciful, when CD players and iPod devices do the same things, however, one must take notice to the oddity of such events. Other complaints include hearing voices crackling over the static of the radios, which are said to sound like a man’s voice calling out “Who’s there?” or “Why?” Sometimes, when truckers cross the bridge, they hear the same thing echoing over their CBs, and when a trucker answers back to what he thinks to be just another driver on the road, he’ll get no response. On occasion, some have heard what sounds like the giggling of two or more girls playing in the distance, as if from a playground, eerily echoing over the radio. Some have even claimed to have seen ghostly hitchhikers on the eastbound side of I-4, as well as dark shapes of people walking on the banks of the road near the river. Now, these could be ordinary people walking on these banks late at night, but one person in particular claims to have seen something far more disturbing one late evening.
A Floridian trucker who delivers produce over-the-road emailed me via my former website in October of 2002 to tell relate his his ghostly encounter while crossing the haunted stretch of I-4. The event actually had this over-the-road trucker locking his cab doors after catching a glimpse of something very strange and quite creepy too. Apparently, this trucker, whom I will refer to as “Pete,” was making a run from Saint Petersburg, then to Orlando and on to Daytona Beach. This routine trek takes him right though this section of I-4. At the time the state was widening that part of I-4, so there was still a lot of construction equipment on the sides of the east and westbound lanes, and because it was late at night, Pete took care in driving safely over the bridge. It was here, at the start of the bridge that his country music station was beginning to break up. Pete thought that was strange because his particular radio is an expensive, state-of-the-art model, able to pick up the most distant radio stations, so going static just didn’t seem right, especially when the radio station was just out of Orlando, only around 13 miles away. Regardless, he remained patient, hoping his station would return when he crossed the St. Johns River, and it was here, when he was near the top of the bridge that he said he spied what a strange man walking toward him on the bank of the road.
As Pete slowed down, yet remained close to the man, he could see that he was tall and slender with a full beard. His features were dark, especially where his eyes would be; almost as if there were no eyes, just empty sockets. He was wearing odd cloths, kind of tattered and certainly out of style. He wore a round hat with a wide brim, a hat similar to the actors on the TV show “Little House on the Prairie.” Certainly, driving for a living can introduce the driver to a lot of strange things and even stranger people, but the thing that Pete saw was more than just something strange. What he remembered the most was the weird color surrounding the image, as if a faint bluish light was being shinned on him from nowhere. Without a doubt, Pete admitted, the whole event was really odd, odd enough to give him the shivers and odd enough to lock the cab doors. But what he found that the most frightening about this event was when he was passing the strange man. You see, as he was beginning to pass this glowing man, he got the urge to look behind him as best he could, for just one more look, but when he did, he saw absolutely nothing — The ghostly wayfarer was gone!
Pete’s email was brief, yet expressed that he was not a fanciful man, prone to, as he put it, “spook stories,” but that particular night, he began to think just a little differently. Pete continues to drive over this stretch of road, as he has done for the last 10 years. And, although he has not written back to report any other encounters, I’m sure that he will always keep a look-out for a ghostly glow, or an odd man walking on the banks of I-4. I suspect that Pete might just lock the doors to his truck when crossing the graves on those dark, moonless nights. To this day, people are reporting more and more that they are having problems with their communication devices and radios, as well as the reports of sightings of the ghostly hitchhikers like Pete saw, as well as other strange people creeping near the river. Some people have even claimed to have stopped their vehicles because these hitchhikers look so desolate and sick, offering to call the police or ambulance for help on their cell phones. When they pull over to ask these people if they’re all right however, they find no one, just the breezy wake of passing cars and trucks roaring by.
Indeed, because the reports of these roadside phantoms have become so commonplace, and have been written about on many ghost hunter websites, those claiming to be psychics, have gathered in hopes to release these tormented souls. Some have come here to apologize for the cruelty by those only interested in progress and wealth, and for ignoring the resting places of the dead…Ignoring the basic human dignity and respect we all deserve. While investigating, several of these psychics have reported that there are many cold spots or “portals” near or around this location, as well as hearing audible voices coming from the bushes and river area, only to yield no sign of people. And, although some have left flower wreaths where the graves are believed to be, the state will still not acknowledge or officially recognize the site where these little graves still lay — Buried under the fast paced highway of I-4.
When traveling to see this site, its best to drive east on I-4 and get off at the Sanford exit, going right. Once there, travel east again until you reach the Saint Johns River, then go left until you reach the I-4 eastbound exit directly on the riverbank. If you decide to park, take caution, as I-4 is not for the timid. Because accidents do happen here quite often, the likelihood of there being danger is always possible, so keep the kids in the car when investigating. The best way to investigate is to drive over the bridge late at night, with your radio on, as well as your cell phone. See for yourself if ghostly voices echo through your radio station, or if your cell phone flickers and fails in mid-conversation, and maybe, just maybe, you might glimpse a ghostly hitchhiker walking alone on the darkened road. And maybe you too will lock your doors while crossing over the entombed graves on central Florida’s haunted highway.
*Here’s a photo of an alleged ‘ghost’ taken shortly after a fatal accident on this stretch of I-4. Is this the spirit of the dead returning to the scene of his or her death? Some folks seem to believe so, while others contend it’s a clever hoax. Either way, it made it to the evening news, which is almost a miracle for today’s news services. You be the judge.
Please drive carefully…
Florida Memory Project: Division of Library & Information Services
Jenkins, Greg (2005) Florida’s Ghostly Legends and Haunted Folklore Vol. 1. Pineapple
Press ISBN-13: 978-1561643271