Columbia County, Florida, is a destination that has something for everyone. From history around every corner to beautiful springs and lakes and miles of footpaths for outdoor and nature lovers, it’s a place that feels like it’s right where you belong as soon as you arrive. An area that continuously leaves visitors and locals alike in awe. Some of the gems about this town include that it’s home to Florida’s first elevator and legendary sports broadcaster Pat Summerall is from here. There’s so much to discover in Columbia County, starting with these 10 fun facts.
1. The Blanche, one of Columbia County’s coolest historical hotels, was home to Florida’s first elevator.
Thanks to The Blanche, Florida received its first elevator when the hotel opened after the turn of the century, in 1902. Now, the three-story hotel will offer apartments for rent, a community gathering space, and office and retail space as part of a revitalization project. This historic hotel has played a key role in shaping Columbia County’s history. Built by architect Frank Pierce Milburn, a well-regarded local architect who ran the largest architecture business in the South at the time, the hotel instantly became a glamorous and cool spot to head in Florida. The hip hotel attracted the likes of Johnny Cash and Al Capone, who were among the repeat guests of the hotel.
View of downtown Lake City and the Blanche Hotel, circa 1948.
2. Lake City was once known as Alligator, after a Seminole Indian chief.
Lake City wasn’t always known as just that. In fact, the city was once named Alligator, for the Seminole Indian chief who ruled over “Alpata Telophka,” or Alligator Town, as the area was once known as. According to the Florida Board of Parks and Historic Memorials, the chief was at the head of the Dade Massacre, which started the Seminole War of 1835. Following the war, the town name was officially changed to Lake City before the Civil War began in 1861.
Lifesize statue of Chief Alligator, located at Alligator Lake Park.
3. Lake City was the original home of the University of Florida.
Jordan Probst founded one of two main precursors to the University of Florida, the Florida Agricultural College in Lake City in 1884. The college was the state’s first land-grant college under the Morrill Act. In 1903, under an attempt for the college to expand beyond agriculture, the college changed its name to the University of Florida. The college held the name for two years before being consolidated with the East Florida Seminary and moving to Gainesville in 1905. The college’s new campus attracted 102 students in its first semester. Today, the campus attracts more than 50,000 students and is ranked as one of the best public universities in the United States.
View of the campus of the Florida Agricultural College, circa 1903 est.
4. Spanish conquistador Hernando De Soto’s Trail runs through Lake City.
Travel in the footsteps of Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto as he made his way through La Florida back in 1539, after his ships disembarked somewhere around Tampa Bay. A time when Seminole Indians roamed the lands, De Soto and his army of 600 men made their way through Columbia County and Lake City in search of gold, eventually making their way from Florida up to the Appalachian Mountains and over to Texas. A trail of De Soto’s camps marks where Europeans had their first prolonged contact with Indians of the Southeast, encounters that would lead to bloodshed and disease, leading to the eventual downfall of local indigenous tribes.
Map of Hernando de Soto Trail. Lake City is point number 23.
5. The area is home to Florida’s largest Civil War battle.
Back in 1864, this area (mostly in the neighboring Baker County) was the site of the Battle of Olustee, which was the only major battle fought in Florida during the American Civil War. The battle was instigated when Union General Truman Seymour led his troops—some 5,500 men—toward Lake City; they didn’t make it far before being greeted in Ocean Pond by an advance unit sent by Confederate Brigadier General Joseph Finnegan. The Union seceded thanks to barrages of rifle and cannon fire from General Finnegan’s 5,000 Confederate soldiers who were entrenched near Olustee Station, causing the remaining soldiers to retreat to Jacksonville.
View of the original gates at Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park.
6. Lake City became the first city in Florida to have electric lights from a local power and light company.
Back in 1891, Lake City became the first city in Florida to have electric lights thanks to the local power and light company. This modernization helped make Lake City an important junction for the railroad and would lead to places like The Blanche hotel being built, attracting a new wave of workers and visitors to the city.
Lamp posts shine bright in front of the former U.S. Post Office Building, downtown Lake City.
7. Columbia County was an important area for training pilots during World War II.
Columbia County played an important role in World War II thanks to its tactical location. The Naval Air Station Lake City, a support facility for the Naval Air Station Jacksonville, helped train pilots to fly the Lockheed Ventura, also known as the Lockheed B-34 Lexington, a twin-engine medium bomber that United States forces would use for maritime patrol from here. Following the war, one of the local airbases was converted into the Columbia Forestry School, becoming the University of Florida Forest Ranger School in 1950 and eventually Florida Gateway College, as it’s known as today.
View of a hanger at the Lake City Municipal Airport, circa 1900's.
8. Fred P. Cone, Florida’s 27th governor, was from Lake City.
Fred P. Cone was Florida’s 27th governor and was elected in 1936. He was born and raised in northern Columbia County and it was the same place he started his political career as the mayor of Lake City. He would then follow in his father’s footsteps; his father was a state senator prior to the Civil War and was elected to the Florida Senate and served as a senator from 1907 to 1913. During his term as governor, Cone created the Florida Highway Patrol. To encourage tourism, the state had the largest exhibition at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, measuring at an impressive 110,000-sq.-ft.
Governor Cone (center) and his cabinet, circa 1938.
9. Pat Summerall, the legendary NFL placekicker and sportscaster, was also from Lake City.
Born in 1930, Pat Summerall started his career as an American football player when, in 1952, he was a fourth-round draft pick for the Detroit Lions. He would go on to play with the New York Giants, where he’d have his most successful season. He retired from football in the early 1960s. In 1962, CBS Sports hired Summerall to work as a commentator on the network’s NFL coverage of New York Giant games and Washington Redskin games. He later moved to postgame coverage of the very first Super Bowl at the end of the 1967 season. He’d go on to commentate for many more years—and Super Bowls—for CBS Sports, Fox Sports and ESPN, working in broadcast until 2012. Summerall passed away in 2013, and John Madden was quoted as calling him "a great broadcaster and a great man," saying "Pat Summerall is the voice of football and always will be."
Sportscaster Pat Summerall, a native of Lake City-Columbia County.
10. Columbia County is the Gateway to Florida.
Thanks to the intersection of Interstate 75 and I-10, and the original highways U.S. 90 and U.S. 41, which have intersected here since 1927, Columbia County is known as the Gateway to Florida. Bordering the Georgia state line to the north and with Gainesville not too far from its southern border (about 40 minutes by car), Columbia County and Lake City are the unofficial welcoming committees for travelers making their way through Florida.
Gateway signs located in downtown Lake City.