The small town of Orange Park is such a close neighbor to Jacksonville that it can be hard to tell where one starts and the other ends. Some Jax residents likely aren’t even aware that Orange Park is, in fact, a town of its own and not part of Jacksonville at all.
The town sits at the northwest corner of Clay County, between the Duval County line at I-295 West Beltway to the north and Doctors Lake to the south. The St. Johns River acts as its eastern border.
The history of Orange Park dates back to the late 1800s, when Boston, MA-based Florida Winter Home and Improvement Company purchased thousands of acres of former plantation land in an area that was once known as Laurel Grove. The company mapped out streets like River Road and Kingsley Avenue for the new town of Orange Park.
In 1879, the town was incorporated by the state legislature. A gigantic wooden sign was erected to signify the new town; it was briefly deemed to be the “largest sign in America.” A large hotel and a lengthy pier were also added to attract tourists.
The town featured a number of orange trees, for which it was named – but they would all die off during a particularly harsh winter prior to the turn of the 20th century.
Orange Park grew rather slowly for decades. An elementary school was built in the 1920s, and gradually other town services developed, but the town’s population remained well under 1,000. It was, notably, home to the family behind the Palmolive Soap Company empire, as well as a “primate biology” research lab.
Things began to change for Orange Park with the construction of NAS Jacksonville in the ‘40s, just a few miles north of the town on Roosevelt Boulevard. Active-duty military personnel and their families seeking nearby housing found their way to Orange Park.
By 1950, the town’s population had rocketed to 1,500. Over the next few decades, the city’s population grew exponentially, climbing up over 8,000 by 1980.
But it wasn’t just the Navy that brought about a population boom.
In 1970, the Buckman Bridge was completed. It brought vehicular traffic across the St. Johns River back and forth from Jax to Orange Park, cutting the amount of time it took for Jaxsons to reach Orange Park significantly.
By 1977, the western beltway of I-295 was also completed, allowing access to Orange Park from I-10.
And in that same decade, the Orange Park Mall was built just outside of town limits. It quickly became one of the area’s most successful shopping malls, outlasting several others in the greater Jacksonville area.
All of these changes led to the town’s population exploding, rising to over 8,500 by 1980.
Orange Park reached its peak – at least population-wise – in the ‘90s, climbing up over 9,000 residents and constructing a new town hall. It has since experienced a regression, backing down below its 1980 population by 2010.
Today, Orange Park is still a modestly-sized town, but much of the surrounding unincorporated area has come to be known as the “Orange Park area.” For example, no part of Blanding Boulevard runs within Orange Park town limits, but most people still associate the road with Orange Park.
The town itself has a population of around 8,700, features a small historic district that includes the original town hotel now redeveloped as Moosehaven, and enjoys the kind of commercial developments atypical of a town its size.
And with surrounding areas like Oakleaf and Argyle Forest growing quickly, it’s likely that big, new developments are coming for Orange Park sometime in the future as well.