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Orlando: History


City Built Around Fort

The last 170 years have been a time of phenomenal change for what was once referred to as "The Phenomenal City." Prior to the arrival of the first European settlers in 1837, the area that is now Orlando was occupied by the Seminole tribe of Native Americans. Historians believe that the Seminoles, whose named is said to mean "wild and separate," inhabited the Central Florida region for 6,000 to 12,000 years. The Second Seminole War, which spanned the period from 1835 to 1842, began when disagreements arose between the natives and the American settlers on such issues as land, cattle, and slaves. In the years following the war the natives moved away, leaving the pioneers who built their town around Fort Gatlin. Until 1845 Orange County, of which the city of Orlando is the county seat, was known as Mosquito County. Tradition holds that Orlando was named after Orlando Reeves, an American soldier on sentinel duty for a scouting party. While Reeves' companion slept, a native approached disguised as a rolling log. Reeves, seeing what was occurring, fired his gun, woke the other soldiers, and saved them from peril. However, Reeves himself succumbed to an arrow shot by the native. Prior to receiving the name Orlando in 1857, the town was known as Jernigan, after Aaron Jernigan, a settler from Georgia. The first post office was established in 1850.

Citrus Industry Spurs Development

Prior to the 1880s, the two biggest industries in central Florida were cattle breeding and cotton growing. During the 1880s some of the pioneers started growing citrus trees. The growth of Orlando in size and prosperity was associated with the need for better transportation to citrus markets on the part of citrus growers. The city had its first rail lines by 1881, and during the 1880s and 1890s there was an influx of new fruit growers. In 1885 Rollins College was founded in Winter Park. By 1886 the city's streets were lined with office buildings, churches, hotels, and schools, and tourists from the north began to spend summers in the area.

Disaster struck in 1894 when a three-day freeze destroyed nearly all the citrus trees in Orange County. The freeze had a devastating effect on the community, which suffered losses of an estimated $100 million. Packing plants closed, banks closed, people lost their jobs, and it was 15 years before Orlando fully recovered.

City Attains Major Status

Between 1910 and 1920 the population of Orlando doubled, and the city was transformed from a rural citrus growing area to a major city. During the 1920s a great building boom aided in Orlando's continuing prosperity, evidenced by the opening of the Orlando Public Library in 1923 and the Municipal Auditorium (now Bob Carr Auditorium) in 1926. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the federal government's Works Progress Administration programs aided in the upgrading of the Municipal Airport, the building of a new football stadium at Tinker Field, and park development, and by 1944 many new jobs had been created.

Another building boom followed World War II, and new suburbs, new roadways, and new shopping centers were built. In 1956 the forerunner of the Lockheed Marietta company began operations, becoming the largest employer in Central Florida. Gradually many more companies and workers followed.

In 1968 Florida Technological University (now called the University of Central Florida) opened its doors. That same year marked the beginning of the Orlando Naval Training Center.

City Becomes World-Class Tourist Site

The development of Walt Disney World in 1971 spurred a construction boom that included apartment buildings, hotels and motels, banks, commercial shopping areas, and tourist-related businesses. The city's Municipal Justice Building was erected in 1972 and Sea World of Florida followed in 1973. Tourism increased, thanks to tourist sites such as Epcot Center built in 1982, and the Disney-MGM Studios theme park, which opened in 1989. To the dismay of many local people, what had once been a sleepy backwater town was rapidly becoming a world class tourist mecca. The town of Orlando was recognized as one of the world's most popular vacation sites.

The economic climate during the 1990s and 2000s was marked by diversification. The tools and technologies that were once geared toward military services were applied to the business sector, and the region developed into a high technology corridor. Industries like software, simulation, digital media, and biotechnology began to boom, fueling further growth and development. Tourism is still the city's primary industry, but Orlando has also developed a reputation for high tech businesses and industries both related and unrelated to the entertainment industry.

Historical Information: Orange County Regional History Center, 65 E. Central Blvd., Orlando, FL 32801; telephone (407)836-8500; toll-free (800)965-2030


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