Highway 50 Revisited
Exploring one of the busiest, yet most overlooked, roadways in our region
Published: December 1, 2011
Colonial Drive Facts | Jungle Adventures | Colombia Bakery | Orlando Fashion Square | Church of Scientology of Orlando | The Jungle MMA and Fitness | Magic Mall Flea Market | Barnett Park | Strictly Skillz
The oil splotches and exhaust bifurcating the strip-mall sprawl that’s come to define the east-west equatorial divide of Orlando’s most well-traveled commercial artery, Colonial Drive, don’t elicit much in the way of nostalgia. Gridlocked into near-anonymity, our stretch of State Road 50 is as much a nuisance as it is a necessity – a car accident waiting to happen in the middle of a road-rage nightmare – and many of the businesses littering the landscape speak to big-box impulse shopping or a fast-food escape, not the quaintness of the neighborhoods nestled away on either side of it. It is probably the first (and worst) thing you’ll notice about Orlando upon arrival. And this will become the road you’re most likely to avoid.
But it wasn’t always that way. It was once known as State Road 22, but in 1924, it was rechristened Cheney Highway, named after Orlando-based U.S. Attorney John Moses Cheney. A bottle of Orange County’s finest orange juice was reportedly shattered on the road to mark the occasion. The celebration of the brick-paved infrastructural wonder carried over onto theater screens nationwide via Fox Films newsreels. Florida, at the time, was at the height of the rural cobblestone phenomenon, ranking third in the nation with 389 bumpy, bricked thoroughfares. We were going places. “The Cheney Highway traverses virgin wilderness, winding [through] beautiful woodlands, along sparkling water courses and silvery lakes, making a drive of continuous interest from Central Florida to the sea,” gushed a 1925 issue of Florida Trucker magazine.
By the postwar era, Cheney Highway was due for expansion. On Nov. 27, 1947, the Thanksgiving Day Sentinel-Star (later the Orlando Sentinel) beamed out the headline “Ocean-to-Gulf Highway Will Pierce Central Florida” with all due fanfare. The Cross State Highway – or State Road 50 – would connect the existing East Orlando portion of Cheney Highway to a $9 million public works omnibus plan that would (with some winding and aberration) stretch to both coasts and open up commerce for Florida’s citrus farmers.
Though the ensuing years have seen State Road 50 (or, in Orlando, Colonial Drive) thrive and falter like the rural economy it virtually replaced, there’s still a certain character, history and charm to its flat-surfaced dullness. To find it, we visited a variety of businesses and landmarks lining the historical path to see if the street could still tell a story. It can: It’s the story of Orlando.