The following is an excerpt from my book Tales of Coles County, a collection of history, folklore, and true crime from one of the most interesting counties in Illinois. Order it in paperback or Kindle today.
Many communities in Illinois have an intersection or stretch of road to avoid where it’s said car accidents frequently occur. Northwest suburban Des Plaines has “Suicide Circle”, Spring Valley has “Help Me” Road, Henry County has “Death Curve”, and the tiny town of Towanda has a “Dead Man’s Curve” on Historic U.S. Route 66. Coles County’s is unique, however, because its name predates the road itself.
When settlers first crossed the wilderness of East Central Illinois, large groves of trees became important landmarks. One such grove, in LaFayette Township on the north branch of Kickapoo Creek, was originally known as Island Grove. It was two miles in diameter and filled with hackberry, elm, and oak trees, and supplied a neighboring village of Kickapoo Indians with firewood and wild game.
In March 1826, a man named Samuel Kellogg discovered the frozen body of a Sand Creek settler named Coffman sitting upright against a tree with his horse bridle thrown over his shoulder. Kellogg hoisted the dead man onto his horse and took him to a nearby settlement for burial. Since then, Island Grove has been known as “Dead Man’s Grove.”
In 1918, nearly a century after Coffman’s frozen body was discovered in the grove, Illinois Route 16 opened to motorized traffic between Mattoon and Charleston. The road curved at a 90-degree angle in front of Oak Grove schoolhouse near the grove, which by that time had been reduced to a fraction of its original size.
By the 1930s, news articles referred to it as “Dead Man’s Grove Corner” or “Dead Man’s Grove Curve.” In the 1940s and ‘50s, the younger generation began to simply call it “Dead Man’s Curve” because, they believed, numerous fatal accidents had occurred there.
One of the earliest and most dramatic accidents happened in the wee hours of Friday, February 1, 1935. Nineteen-year-old Harold Conard of Sullivan was joyriding with his brother and two friends when their sedan side-swiped a stopped truck as they headed west into the curve. The truck, they said, had unusually bright headlights. Rather than make the turn, they continued straight onto the road in front of the schoolhouse (today E County Road 900 N), where the accident occurred.
Harold’s passengers received only minor injuries in the rollover, but flying glass severed Harold’s jugular vein and he died as passersby took them to the hospital. Originally, it was reported the truck fled the scene, but an investigation later exonerated the driver, Leland Kerans of Ashmore, who stopped to help pull Harold from the wreckage before driving off to summon an ambulance.
When a 4-lane highway, the present-day Route 16, was constructed between Mattoon and Charleston in 1962, the stretch of road containing Dead Man’s Curve was re-named Illinois Route 316. Despite its reputation, county officials insisted the curve was nowhere near as dangerous as its reputation suggested.
In 1984, Coles County Coroner Richard “Dick” Lynch told the Decatur Herald and Review there had only been five fatal accidents at the curve in the past 70 years. “Altering the curve won’t change anything,” he said. “Actually, it’s not the curve that is unsafe and causes the accidents, it’s the drivers.”
Dead Man’s Grove is gone today, replaced by a concrete mixing plant. The old Oak Grove schoolhouse is gone too, but the legend of “Dead Man’s Curve” lives on. The curve is located along Illinois Route 316, at the intersection with E County Road 900 N, approximately five miles northeast of Mattoon.
- Peck, John Mason. A Gazetteer of Illinois, in Three Parts. Philadelphia: Grigg & Elliott, 1837.
- “Cars in Collision at Dead Man’s Grove Corner.” The Daily Journal-Gazette and Commercial Star (Mattoon) 2 May 1931.
- “Sullivan Young Man Killed.” The Daily Journal-Gazette and Commercial Star (Mattoon) 1 February 1935.
- “Kerans Exonerated in Death of Harold Conard.” The Daily Journal-Gazette and Commercial Star (Mattoon) 5 February 1935.
- “3 Autos Collide at Dead Man’s Grove.” The Daily Journal-Gazette and Commercial Star (Mattoon) 17 January 1939.
- “Youth Escapes Burning Auto.” The Daily Journal-Gazette and Commercial Star (Mattoon) 2 March 1951.
- “Dead Man’s Grove Curve or Just Dead Man’s Curve?” The Daily Journal-Gazette and Commercial Star (Mattoon) 29 May 1953.
- “Curve not deadly: officials.” Herald and Review (Decatur) 1 June 1984.
- Journal-Gazette (Mattoon) 23 June 1987.
- “Sentence includes jail time for DUI.” Herald and Review (Decatur) 6 August 1987.
- “Woman hurt, ticketed in accident on Illinois 316.” The Daily Journal-Gazette (Mattoon) 9 June 1995.
- “Truck overturns on Dead Man’s Curve drive; driver OK.” Journal-Gazette (Mattoon) 3 May 1999.
- “Woman hurt in accident.” JG-TC (Mattoon) 27 June 2012.