The town of Lakeland, Florida grew around the success of the railroad system in the latter part of the 1800’s. Incorporated in 1885, the town offered a progressive outlook, excellent commerce, job opportunities, and an attractive central location. Lakeland’s rail system transported agriculture and phosphate in every direction. As the century turned, the town grew and prospered. Lakeland rode the wave of the 1920’s land boom and entered a golden age in which it seemed the prosperity could never end. The rail system continued to expand, becoming one of the largest in the state. Lakeland felt the sting of the subsequent “bust” but was resilient, chugging along like the very locomotives that carried the tangible hopes of the residents for as long as possible.
The rail-yard operation came to a halt in 1952. The massive site sat and languished for decades. The land, used and abused, carried environmental scars of unknown proportion. Nature had its way, though. First came the weeds, then the plants, and finally the trees. Unattended for over 60 years, the old rail yard transformed into a jungle. It also became a garbage dump, a gathering place for the homeless, and an eyesore to the community.
Henry David Thoreau said, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see,” and longtime Lakeland resident, David Bunch, saw something different. He pitched his idea for a park that would reconnect the Northwest quadrant to the rest of the city. He painted the picture of an idea and he shared it with the right people. Carol and Barney Barnett and retired Lakeland Parks and Recreation Director Bill Tinsley were enthusiastic about the project, though the challenges would be immense.
The team partnered with a Boston-based firm, Sasaki, to create a workable vision and devise strategies for the remediation of environmental hazards. The site was covered with the by-products of the industrial period, mainly arsenic and petroleum contaminants. Additionally, Lake Bonnet and the nearby natural spring were among the most polluted watersheds in Lakeland. More than 200 acres surrounding the site were originally developed in such a way that the urban run-off flowed to and through the area, carrying high levels of chemicals and large amounts of trash directly into the lake. Working closely with regulatory agencies and an environmental consultant, the contaminated ground was pulled and mounded and then covered with over 315,000 cubic yards of clean fill. Additionally, a system was devised to catch the stormwater that had wreaked havoc in the area. The water now runs through a vault that physically removes the trash and empties into a winding wet meadow composed of native and adapted species designed to slow and filter the water. Creative methods of environmental intervention have become highlights of the Bonnet Springs landscape. Beautiful contours and hills now block noise, direct breezes, and create play nooks for families throughout the park. Massive heritage trees, ponds, and creeks pull visitors deeper in to explore all that Bonnet Springs has to offer— a state-of-the-art playground and water play area, a Nature Center, The Depot Park Cafe, a rooftop bar, a natural amphitheater for concerts and events, The Florida Children’s Museum, a children’s resource center, a beautiful event venue, the 5-senses garden, a butterfly area, and more. There is something for everyone, and no one could experience it all in one visit.