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Facts and history of Orlando’s Colonial Drive (aka State Route 50)

May 6, 2013
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Back in 2011, the staff of Orlando Weekly embarked on a pretty ambitious project. We wanted to capture the essence of the much-maligned (and heavily trafficked) east-west artery we call Colonial Drive here in Orlando (State Route 50 once you travel a bit outside Orlando proper). We went to barber shops, roadside attractions, strip malls, parks and bakeries and profiled some of the businesses and people who keep this east-west vital artery humming with activity. What we came up with was a story called “Highway 50 revisited,” a selection of stories, photos and tidbits that we published on Dec. 1, 2011. Included in the package was this collection of random facts, trivia and moments in time that punctuate the roadway’s history.

The online version of the story has recently received some unexpected new traffic this week, and it reminded me how difficult the web layout of the story was to navigate. So I decided to pull out our factoids about Colonial Drive (most of which were culled from various papers and books found at the Orange County Regional History Center) and republish them as a blog so they’d be easier to find online.

 

  • State Route 50 runs throughout Central Florida, from Weeki Wachee on the west coast, to Titusville on the east. The highway is called by different names in different regions, such as Cortez Boulevard in Hernando County and Colonial Drive in much of Orange County. Parts of the highway east of 436 (Semoran Boulevard) follow the old Cheney Highway, the original road that ran from Orlando to Titusville.
  • When driving along Route 50 from Orlando to the east coast, you may see a large, decorated Christmas tree on your left-hand side. That tree marks the location of the town of Christmas’ Old Post Office Museum. The museum is home to a collection of ornaments from the White House trees of five presidents, a year-round nativity display, historic post office memorabilia and a collection of 150 bride dolls in native dress.
  • “Originally, the roads going into Orlando were just trails, and they did not follow the path of Highway 50, or what we call Colonial Drive today. What they ended up doing, in the probably late nineteen-teens and 20s, was make a road called Cheney Dixon Highway that went from Florida City, now known as Titusville, where it dead ends at the Indian River, all the way to Tampa, just like 50 does. The path is very much the same. It’s a bit off in different areas – it was very much more windy then than it is now, but it follows a very similar direction.” – Vickie Prewitt, recreation specialist, Fort Christmas Historical Park
  • Excerpt from From the Florida sand to the City Beautiful: A Historical Record of Orlando, Florida, by E.H. Gore, published in 1951: “Mr. Charles D. Sweet, a surveyor from Louisiana, located in Orlando in 1873. He had traveled up and down the Mississippi Valley and got a desire to see what Florida looked like. When he arrived in Orlando, he liked it so well he decided to locate. He surveyed part of the city when it was incorporated in 1875 and laid out some of the streets. He wanted to make Gertrude Street a main thoroughfare through Orlando but when the South Florida Railroad was built in 1880, it followed through a large portion of that street. That street was named for his sister Gertrude. He was elected to the board of Aldermen in 1880 and served as mayor in 1881. He wanted to name the streets running east and west after different mayors so started out with Marks and Sweet streets, but some time later the name of Sweet Street was changed to Colonial Drive. He was one of the pioneers who helped change Orlando from a village to a city.”

 

Important and interesting dates in the history of State Route 50

1926: F.B. Mills opens a new residential subdivision on 60 acres of land along Colonial Drive, between Hampton and Bumby, and names it Colonial Gardens after the successful gladiola-bulb business and plant nursery he ran on the property before developing it.

1927: City creates a police informational booth at the corner of West Colonial Drive and Orange Street to offer information to tourists traveling through the area.

1953: 24 parcels of land along Colonial Drive are taken in the county’s largest condemnation suit to date.

1954: Completion of the Colonial Drive section of the East-West Highway spurs rezoning of the city from Orange Blossom Trail to Mills Avenue. Much of what was once residentially zoned is opened to commercial development, and Colonial Drive is officially dedicated as State Route 50. “Official dedication of Colonial Drive was held Aug. 18, with the Acting Governor Johns the honor guest,” says Eve Bacon’s Orlando: a Centennial History of the affair. “A parade and street dance highlighted the celebration, with Cracker Jim (Hanley Pogue) in charge of a hog-calling contest.”

1955: Western Way Shopping Center on West Colonial Drive opens, with Moses Pharmacy and Landis Stone’s Hardware Store as anchor tenants.

1956: Colonial Plaza shopping center opens.

1960: Evangelist Oral Roberts draws 10,000 faithful to Orlando for a 10-day religious revival set up in a huge tent on West Colonial Drive.

1963: Highway 50 is widened into four lanes and the first traffic light at the corner of East Colonial and Maguire Boulevard is installed.

1974: Speed World, a 3/8 mile high-banked oval racing track, opens near the intersection of State Routes 50 and 520, 15 miles east of Orlando.

1974: Town gossip Charlie Wadsworth’s Orlando Sentinel column, Hush Puppies, details a controversy involving the renaming of Cheney Highway to William B. McGee Highway by Gov. Reubin Askew. McGee was a 29-year employee of the Florida Department of Transportation. Sen. Bill Gibson, R-Orlando – pressured by the Orange County Commission – brokers a deal with the Florida Department of Transportation to split the highway: McGee on the west, Cheney on the east.

1975: First Vietnamese refugees arrive in Orlando, according to Orlando: a Centennial History, Vol. II. According to the book, a Saigon neurosurgeon and educator, Dr. Pham Huu Phuoc and Nguyen Ninh Hoan, were sponsored for emigration by Orlando psychiatrist Dr. E. Michael Gutman. Gutman and his wife formed what became known as “the Gutman Shuttle,” which helped more than 1,300 families relocate from Vietnam to the United States after the fall of Saigon. The Gutman Shuttle is credited for the dense population of Vietnamese immigrants that settled in Orlando throughout the ’70s. Gutman died in 2009.

1999: Orange County Commissioner Homer Hartage proposes redevelopment of West Colonial Drive. Hartage’s attempt is followed by a 2002 Special Design Overlay District for West Colonial Drive from North Pine Hills Road to Good Homes Road. Numerous businesses are unhappy about the restrictions designed to reduce blight.

2009: Of the twelve most dangerous intersections in Orlando (which was named the most dangerous city for pedestrians by Transportation for America) traveled by performance artist Brian Feldman, five of them cross Colonial Drive: North Pine Hills Road, North Hiawassee Road, North Goldenrod Road, North Alafaya Trail, North Semoran Boulevard.

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