Florida, as you may or may not know, is a spit of land risen out of the sea and composed mainly of limestone. Limestone being what it is, sinkholes are a part of life as much as tornadoes are in Oklahoma and sandstorms in Iraq. There are several types of sinkholes and they can be no bigger than a pothole or pretty damn big--you don't exactly think "hole" when you see the Qattara Depression. The most common type in Florida's karst geology is created simply by subsidence of the porous limestone under the ground.

In May 1981, the small city of Winter Park, Florida made the headlines across the US and has never been as famous (or interesting) since. Several years of unusual drought (yes, Florida gets droughts) had left the aquifer extremely low so the weakest part of a chunk of land on the southern side of Winter Park decided it was tired and wanted to go to bedrock (boo, hiss, badum-ching).

Going down!

Anyway, many years before a hole in the ground opened to swallow that pun and its author, another hole in the ground opened near the corner of Fairbanks and Denning, on the Orange County side of town. Fairbanks is a fairly big east-west road, also known as State Road 426. Denning is a long north-south side road parallel to and often used by people trying to avoid traffic on US17/92. The sinkhole, prosaically dubbed the Winter Park sinkhole, kept growing well into the following day, which gave everyone ample time to get there and watch it grow. It must have been a slow news day so it attracted a flock of news helicopters, a crowd of gawkers, and a number of quick-thinking t-shirt and sandwich vendors. The latter got the business of the sub shop that was teetering on the edge of the main attraction and whose owner was less concerned with the competition than he was with not going under in more than one sense.

Much of the action was over early in the show, as a two-story house that was in the bullseye went for a quick dip and was never seen again. The entertainment was kept up by the hole's slow but inexorable consumption of more and more bits of the landscape. A camper van went to join the house and a Porsche shop contributed part of its building and half a dozen sporty cars to the collection. At some point the earth spirits decided that the municipal swimming pool needed expanding. By the time the hole stabilised the pool was more Olympian than Olympic as the sinkhole reached about 350 feet in diameter and 100 feet in depth (100x30 metres). At its greatest extent, the sinkhole had taken a bite out of Denning Drive, which was later repaired and looks none the worse for the wear.

No humans were harmed in the creation of this sinkhole but the collective purse did sustain damages to the tune of approximately four million Reagan-era dollars.

A Rose by any other name (or: when a sinkhole is not a sinkhole)

Today the site of the sinkhole is called Lake Rose. That was the result of the connivance of the City of Winter Park and a late (but pushy while he was around) local pawnbroker by the name of Louis Montesi. Mr Montesi bought some lots at the edge of the sinkhole and talked the city into filling and groundscaping the edges of the sinkhole. Then he had them declare it an urban lake named after one of the chaps who first spotted the hole. Since it was no longer officially a sinkhole, the surrounding properties remained eligible for sinkhole insurance, which is a wise investment in central Florida.

Sinkholes will be sinkholes, though, no matter what you call them. In December 1987, the fill job on the southern edge of the hole (Fairbanks Ave) gave and another 25 feet of property, mainly consisting of Mr Montesi's hard-earned parking lot, went to join the house and cars at the bottom of the, err, lake. Montesi took his profits or losses and sold out a few years later. A few daring shopkeepers still do business on the site.

What can you do with a hole this size?

Being the only attraction worth mentioning in a quasi-suburb of a metropolitan tourist trap, Winter Park still lists the sinkhole as one of its major attractions, even though it looks very much like the hundreds of other lakes that dot the landscape of Orlando and its environs. Many of these lakes, no doubt, began their life as sinkholes.

The Winter Park sinkhole, with a known depth that currently is around 75 feet but which can vary with the water table it's connected to, attracts all sorts. Occasionally the odd cave divers will venture in, though Lake Rose is said to have a vicious thermocline and lots of silt, making it a rather unappealing advanced diving site for the adventurous. Even more than divers, the sinkhole attracts vehicles that their owners wish to dispose of in something deeper than a drainage canal. These days casual diving is off-limits as the sinkhole became pretty much a permanent crime scene--a Needle Park of insurance fraud. Divers that do go down collect the plate numbers or VINs of vehicles at the bottom of the lake and hand them to the cops, who later haul out the cars as evidence.


Nothing of this sort of highly localised importance could exist without an urban legend as an epilogue. This being Florida, scaly, man-eating lake monsters are too much of a reality to qualify for urban legend status in any body of water larger than a puddle. So the word on the street is that at least one of the sunken Porsches belonged to a drug dealer and was endowed with a trunk full of nose candy. What can I say, it was the eighties.

While accounts of the number of sunken luxury cars vary, ranging from three to six, the commonly accepted number in most variants of this story is five. An unspecified number of those cars were eventually recovered, though in what state I cannot imagine. Nobody can say how many of the cars were blessed with the alleged stash of discount blow or who they belonged to. Supposedly the camper van was also hauled out and was then simply driven off by its owner. I'll take these tales with a line of salt.

Inspired by images of the sinkhole-like feature that opened in Guatemala City on May 31, 2010

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