When I walked into Foundation, The Rolling Stones’ 1971 album “Sticky Fingers” was playing in the background. Peter and Alex Cohen, brothers and owners of the shop, lounged on chairs as they chatted with two customers who were flipping through their newest shipment. “We started to sell records on Instagram to fund the other stuff we […]
The road to success is always under construction. — J.D. (Jake) Sandefer Jr, Abilene Reporter-News (March 19, 1963)
If you’re fortunate, you can find your way around Orlando and Central Florida while avoiding the ultimate I-4 nightmare the thoroughfare has become. Seemingly always under construction and perpetually reshaping the landscape, especially as it bisects College Park, I-4 isn’t what driving pleasure is all about.
Imagine if I-4 were being routed today … There would be no way Lake Ivanhoe would have been cut in half, dredged and filled to provide a narrow bridge over what was once Orlando’s primary water source — a local treasure with depths reaching the aquifer. Not to mention the beautiful homes that were lost.
Building roads in Florida was, in the beginning, simply a matter of chopping down a few trees. The original roads followed either Indian trails and/or old mule trails, mostly between forts built by the military during the Seminole Wars. (I-4 actually follows an old military trail from Sanford to Tampa.)
Prior to the turn of the 20th century, the main road leading into Orlando from the north was known as the Orlando-Ocala road. It was mostly a pine straw–carpeted path that neither lent a smooth nor fast track to any destination, directly or otherwise. Like most roads of the day, it was intended to move goods between settlements and connect to ports and railroad stations. For the most part, it followed the route we know today as US 441, or Orange Blossom Trail. But before it carried either of those names, it was known as the Dixie Highway.
According to Tammy Ingram’s “Dixie Highway: Road Building and the Making of the Modern South, 1900–1930,” the Dixie Highway evolved from the Progressive Era’s Good Roads Movement, an effort to improve and develop a national road system (UNC Press Books, 2014).
Beginning in 1914, Carl Fisher, largely uncredited for being the father of the federal interstate system, dreamed up the Dixie Highway Association.
Fisher had been involved in the building of a highway joining San Francisco with the East, so he had the connections to make it work.
However, it took a full year to organize the initial assembly, a huge undertaking involving more than 4,000 people. Participants included governors and two representatives from each state along the proposed route.
According to several sources, the name Dixie was chosen to celebrate 50 years of peace between the North and the South.
According to an article by Justin Cozart, “In Florida, the Dixie Highway was 9 feet wide and paved almost entirely with bricks, a substantial engineering feat at the time” (http://www.southeastroads.com/orlando.html).
Eventually, it linked Florida with the Midwest in a 6,000-mile round trip by way of hundreds of short local roads from Lake Michigan to Miami Beach and back. For a number of years, these roads were privately maintained; there weren’t any federal dollars for building highways.
Though Florida was already catering to tourists via trains and steam boat trips up and down the St. Johns, most people could not afford to visit. Private cars solved that, and the Dixie Highway opened Florida to major growth.
The roadway was also nicknamed “the tourist run” with its “tin can tourists” known for eating out of tin cans and camping along the way.
Sorting out the many roads now called Dixie Highway can be confusing to visitors and residents alike.
College Park maps of that era identify the Dixie Highway as the road we now call Edgewater Drive, yet a section of the old brick highway still circles around Maitland’s Lake Lily.
By the 1950s, Central Florida was experiencing the exponential growth we take for granted. As Orlando’s population grew, roadways took on new names and even new directions. Some roads completely disappeared, and others were carved out of the landscape.
It’s fun (and also a little sad) to look at old maps and imagine the land before it was paved over and neighborhoods were divided.
Could the visionaries who built the Dixie Highway have guessed those miles would become the gateway to Florida’s incredible growth and success? From a population 100 years ago of less than a million to over 18 million today, our road to success has always been under construction.