The name alone strikes fear in Akron motorists. Dead Man’s Curve is an intersection that commands respect.
More than 11,000 vehicles pass each day through the Ellet crossroads at East Market Street (state Route 18) and Canton Road (state Route 91). After a century of improvements, it doesn’t look like a curve anymore.
Unfortunately, its deadly nickname is not an exaggeration.
In the late 19th century, the thoroughfare was known as the Akron and Canton Road because it was the main route between the two cities. The blind curve, nearly a right angle running east to south, was situated between the Summit County hamlets of Brittain and North Springfield (also known as Springfield Center).
It was an unpaved road through quiet farmland, and the curve was tricky to navigate even with horse-drawn buggies.
In 1902, the Northern Ohio Traction & Light Co. built tracks on the road and opened interurban service to Canton. The traffic grew crowded with the arrival of joy-riding motorists. In a travel guide for drivers, B.F. Goodrich warned of the “dangerous right curve” on the way to Canton and the “dangerous left fork” on the return to Akron.
In 1915, county workers paved the highway with bricks, which were slippery when wet. The curve was 16 feet wide and dark at night, an accident waiting to happen.
Six Cleveland men and two Akron women were injured in July 1915 when a touring car crashed at 1:30 a.m. on a joy ride to Canton. In an era before seat belts, all eight people were thrown from the vehicle, but miraculously, no one died.
The first recorded fatality on the curve was May 22, 1916. Two carloads of friends were returning from a Sunday drive at 12:30 a.m. when the front vehicle spun out in the rain and flipped into a ditch.
Lawyer Frank J. Rockwell, the son of former Akron Mayor Frank W. Rockwell, was driving his wife, Catherine, and friend Gay Huber. In the second car, A.W. Morrette drove his wife, Martha, and friends Robert and May Beebe.
“The pavement was so slippery that we were proceeding carefully,” May Beebe explained. “Evidently, Mr. Rockwell’s car skidded at the turn and turned a complete somersault. It was lying partly in the ditch when we saw what had happened and stopped. Mrs. Rockwell wasn’t pinned under the car, but was lying near it.”
The mayor’s daughter-in-law had been thrown clear but her neck was broken. She was pronounced dead at Akron City Hospital.
The curve’s infamous nickname debuted in print 100 years ago after a fender-bender in October 1919. Driver Joe Salanti, 21, was jailed after a whiskey-fueled crash.
“Salanti, in company with Joe Motas, 22, and Davis Lock, 17, all of Cleveland, were passing ‘dead man’s curve’ on E. Market St., Friday night, returning from Canton to Cleveland, when the machine, owned by Lock’s father, and operated by Salanti, collided with a car going from Cleveland to Canton,” the Beacon Journal reported.
The intersection’s deadly reputation was cemented a year later.
A Ford touring car with six young people had stopped May 30, 1920, on the tracks west of the curve, apparently to allow a passenger to exit. Motorman J.C. Wallick steered an Akron-bound trolley around the bend, slammed into the auto and dragged it 200 feet, killing Alfred Rafferty, 18, Elmer Rafferty, 20, Sylvester Rafferty, 22, Eva Hepfer, 18, and Lucinda Barcus, 20.
“Purely accidental,” Summit County Coroner Carl H. Kent ruled.
The sole survivor was Catherine Rafferty, 17, who suffered a fractured skull and broken leg, and later filed a $50,000 lawsuit against the traction company, claiming permanent disability in the crash that killed her brothers.
In an effort to improve safety, workers widened the road from 16 to 30 feet in the 1920s, although the curve itself remained narrow for years. Crews repaved the street and put up warning signs.
Dead Man’s Curve, also known as Death Curve, became an identifying landmark. In 1924, a homeowner took out a classified ad: “Six rooms, bath, electric pump; large lot, fruit, shrubbery; fine homes near Death Curve.” Another ad noted: “Modern, six rooms and bath, on Canton rd., second house from Death Curve.” It was a strange selling point.
Neighbors tried to rechristen the area as Oak Hill and East View, but the names didn’t stick.
Despite another road widening, improved sight lines and blinking lights, the death toll rose. Among the fatal crashes:
Dewey Sayfoot, 27, died July 4, 1922, when his car rolled three times after a tire blowout. Luke Kelsey, 55, died in a head-on crash Aug. 11, 1932. Sylvia Chapman, 31, and Robert Richards, 24, were passengers in a car that hit a utility pole Feb. 6, 1939.
Pedestrian Arthur Jenkins, 50, was struck by a car Jan. 24, 1940. John Baldwin, 70, died Nov. 12, 1940, after stepping off the curb into an auto's path. William H. Neithercoat, 77, a passenger in a car struck broadside, died on Christmas 1941.
Passenger James W. Criswell, 29, went through the windshield Feb. 24, 1942. Motorcyclist Earl Nelson, 25, hit a tree May 13, 1947.
In 1948, the city finally installed a modern traffic signal.
“At Dead Man’s Curve, East Market Street and Canton Road, the accident rate dropped like a bride’s cake when we put in a new magnetic-control light in December,” Traffic Signal Superintendent Ray Meyers said in 1949.
There were still crashes, though, including some fatalities. Pedestrians, bicycles, motorcycles, automobiles, trucks, buses and even police cars were in accidents.
In 1959, the Ohio Department of Traffic Safety ranked the Akron intersection as the fourth worst in the state by number of accidents. There were 19 crashes and nine injuries over a nine-month span.
For generations, Akron officials have tried to improve Dead Man’s Curve. Today, the Akron Metropolitan Area Transportation Study ranks the four-lane intersection as the 87th worst for crashes in the county, an improvement from fourth worst in Ohio.
This July, the Akron City Council gave initial approval to spend $4.5 million to build a roundabout, a plan that has drawn the ire of neighbors. The solution to the curve apparently is to add more curves.
Even if no more crashes are ever reported there, the old nickname will be tough to shake after 100 years.
Maybe it will evolve.
In the future, Dead Man’s Curve might be Dead Man’s Circle.
Mark J. Price can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3850.