Every so often we find ourselves driving through Winter Park, a town of 30,000 people just north of Orlando. The Costco and Trader Joe's are there. Today we drove through on our way to the Apple store to pick up a repaired laptop. Every time we are in the area for retail activities, we get the sense that there is more there than has met our eye. Today we finally went to the confluence of three lakes formed by fresh water springs and saw where it all began in 1858. While Orlando came into being as a military town, Winter Park was founded by rich folks from Chicago who came here to avoid the winter weather back home just as we have. Once the railroad came through and air conditioning was invented, rich folks moved in permanently. Since the lake shore is pretty well built out, rich folks buy three million dollar homes, knock them down, and build six million dollar homes. This little town has three art museums and a well funded Rollins College which students can attend for a cool $70,000/year. Presidents and famous entertainers are regular visitors.
We took a boat ride on all three lakes and were struck by how much the area reminded us of Lake Geneva, WI, another escape hatch for Chicago's rich who left the city after the great fire and summer there to this day. The lakes are tied together by small canals, so our tourist boat and all the others on the lakes are small, too. From the lake we could see a beautiful park, which we drove to after the boat tour. The live oaks were dripping with Spanish Moss and one of them had six Great Herons camped out in its branches. It looked like some nest building was also in progress there. We couldn't understand why they were all in this one tree near the parking area, when the park was full of massive old trees.
This area was in the news not too long ago when it all almost disappeared. In 1972, Henry Swanson, an agricultural agent and "resident layman expert on Central Florida water," wrote a letter to the editor warning Orange County mayors of the sinkhole danger that could be posed by overdevelopment and excessive groundwater use. Swanson predicted that the west Winter Park area would be especially at risk. In 1981, during a period of record-low water levels in Florida's limestone aquifer, a massive sinkhole opened near near the house of Mae Rose Williams. Within a few hours, a 40-year-old sycamore tree near her house had fallen into the sinkhole. The next morning, the hole expanded to nearly 40 feet wide. In a story in the Orlando Sentinel, she said that as the sun rose, she heard a noise "like giant beavers chewing" as the hole began to devour more of her land. The hole was collapsing rapidly. By noon, as she realized that her home was slipping into the expanding hole, she and the family evacuated and removed their belongings. That afternoon her house fell into the sinkhole, and within a few hours the house was irrevocably on its way into the sinkhole's center, headed to unknown depths.
The hole eventually widened to 320 feet and to a depth of 90 feet. The following fell into the sinkhole: five Porsches at a repair shop, a pickup truck with camper top, the Winter Park municipal pool, and large portions of Denning Drive. Damage was estimated at $2 million to $4 million. May 9, 1981: The sinkhole grew to a record size, gulping down 250,000 cubic yards of soil and taking with it the deep end of an Olympic-size swimming pool, chunks of two streets and Williams' three-bedroom home and yard. Florida engineers have described the event as "the largest sinkhole event witnessed by man as a result of natural geological reasons or conditions."
The sinkhole drew national attention and became a popular tourist attraction during the summer of 1981. A carnival-like atmosphere arose around the area, with vendors selling food, balloons, and T-shirts to visitors. The city of Winter Park sold sinkhole photographs for promotional and educational purposes.July 9, 1981: Winter Park begins selling sinkhole photographs to educate the community about sinkholes and to promote tourism. The sinkhole began to fill with water that summer, but on July 19 the water level suddenly dropped by a reported 15 to 20 feet.
As the novelty wore off, the city worked to repair the damage. Workers were able to recover four of the six vehicles that fell into the sinkhole, including the travel trailer, whose owner drove it away, and three of the five Porsches. The other two remain at the bottom of the lake with Mae Rose Owens' home. Engineers filled in the bottom with dirt and concrete. Diver reports from 2009 suggest that the lake has since been used to dispose of unwanted vehicles. "The other two remain at the bottom of the lake with Mae Rose Owens' home, as well as three other vehicles that were reported by divers in 2009, who saw a Cadillac and a Toyota from the 1980s and a Dodge pickup truck with a 2001 license plate. Apparently the site that once took expensive cars without their owners' permission had become a place to dispose of unwanted vehicles. Besides a 1987 incident in which the bottom of the lake suddenly dropped 20 feet, causing erosion on the southern rim, the stabilized sinkhole has been generally quiet.