Long before the modern concrete sidewalks circled it, in downtown New Port Richey was a much different place. In fact, wasn’t even called Orange Lake.
One of the earliest known references to the lake appears in the Ohio Democrat on Feb. 9, 1888, when it was known as Blue Sink, a common name given to many sinkholes throughout the state.
The article describes the site as a beautiful circular formation filled with water as blue as indigo and banks sloping gently down as giant pines abound all around.
Although unconfirmed, it is believed the lake is indeed a sinkhole that has likely filled with silt through the years.
In 1911, when the site of the original town was laid out, planners took advantage of the lake, making it the central point of their approximately one-square-mile plan. Why or when the name Orange Lake was assigned is unknown, but by 1915, this new name appears in print.
Some speculate the name changed because Blue Sink was too common. Others think the new name may have been chosen because of the lake’s natural, circular formation, like an orange.
Along with the , the lake soon became a main selling point to prospective land buyers. Promoters captured its natural beauty in photographs that were published in their real estate brochures distributed throughout northern states.
In those days, residents found the lake a prime hunting ground for all types of wildlife, including bear, bobcat, quail and alligator. But, as the city grew and more people were attracted to the natural beauty and intrigue, the property surrounding the lake was developed.
Among the first developments was the clearing of the lake shore for Orange Circle, or Circle Boulevard. Afterward, a white fence was erected to keep the town’s livestock from becoming prey to Jack, a scaly nine-foot resident alligator.
On March 3, 1922, during the first , Orange Circle was transformed into a race track. The New Port Richey Press reported an exciting race between Ford cars resulted in first prize to Mr. Morris of Elfers and second prize to Mr. O'Hara of New Port Richey.
In the late 1920s, the lake entered a new era of development with the construction of an 18-hole municipal golf course by Stiles and Van Kleek of Boston. But during course work some unexpected discoveries were made.
According to the New Port Richey Press, during construction of the golf course in February 1929, the remains of a human skeleton were found while excavating a portion of the lake shore. The hole from where the skeleton was taken was only a few feet deep. All around the excavation workers also found a large number of prehistoric arrowheads and stone tools. Local scholars thought the Orange Lake section may have been some type of shrine used by American Indians who lived in the vicinity.
After extraction of the remains, construction on the golf course continued and was soon completed. The small fairways and greens were dressed with muck and fertilizer before Bermuda and Rye grass seed was planted.
As a municipal golf course, it fell under the supervision of the park board as appointed by the city council – J.L. Wolverton was the first official in charge. During the opening month of March 1929, statistics show a two-week total of 552 players and as many as 55 in a single day.
The course was deemed one of the most unique in America and, as its popularity grew, it was frequented by travelers from all over the world. Best of all, it was absolutely free to local residents, tourists and casual visitors to the city.
In September 1934, during the Great Depression, the city was given federal aid under the Emergency Relief Act and in the form of laborers. Work was put forth to rehabilitate the famous little 18-hole Orange Lake golf course.
However, these efforts soon proved fruitless when, on Dec. 3, 1935, New Port Richey voters decided 131-29 to end the small municipal course that had attracted so many to their city.
The modern era of Orange Lake improvements materialized in 1946 with the addition of a war memorial as the lake shore transitioned from its days as a golf course to its current park-like setting. In more recent years, this memorial has expanded to include the entire shoreline, with sidewalks and different stations with brick pavers for each branch of the military.
Between May 1954 and 1965, Orange Lake again became a burial ground when city founder and early real estate promoter George Sims died. In complying with his instructions, Sims’ remains were interred on the west shoreline following services at the Community Congregational Church. Located about 50 feet from the water’s edge, the grave was eventually moved to Sylvan Abby Cemetery following the death of his wife Marjorie Byington Sims in 1965.
One unfortunate fact about today’s Orange Lake is the numerous city storm drains that empty into it and the nearby river. According to the city’s stormwater department website, “stormwater runoff passes over our yards, parking lots, and streets, picking up traces of fertilizer, pesticides, animal waste, litter, oil, gasoline, and other fluids from vehicles," ultimately discharging into local waterways.
As city planners look to the future, let’s hope they include preserving the city’s rich history and protecting our few natural resources.