Cape Canaveral: A Brief History of America’s Spacecoast.

The Cape was named by the Spanish explorers sailing the Atlantic coast in the 16th century. It was located halfway between the settlement at Saint Augustine, which was founded in 1565, and the mission built in what is now Miami in 1567.  Some called it the Cape of Currents, but the name Cabo Cañareal was first used during the explorations of Francisco Gordillo in the 1520s and began appearing on maps forty years later.  What we now know as the Indian River was originally named Rio de Ais, named after the native Ais tribe.

Cape Canaveral from orbit. Taken by the crew of the Space Shuttle Atlantis during STS-43 in August of 1991.

The French and Spanish both attempted to settle the area, unsuccessfully, and the Spanish built small fortifications on the Cape. But, the first settlers didn’t arrive until after Florida had become a U.S. territory.

One of the first permanent settlements in the area was Dummitt Grove. Located on the northern end of Merritt Island, it was founded by Captain Douglas Dummitt.[1][2][3] Dummitt grafted buds from sweet orange trees onto his sour orange trees, establishing the popular Indian River brand that exists today.

Florida became a state in 1845. In 1855, the Cape area became part of Brevard County.[4] After the Civil War, farmers began planting pineapple and sugar cane. Ranchers raised cattle on Merritt Island.  As more people moved into the region, new communities were founded.[5]

The railroad depot in Titusville, from a 1905 postcard.

Sand Point was founded in 1859, but it wasn’t developed until Henry Titus arrived in 1867. He set about creating a town, laying out roads and donating land for a courthouse and churches. Legend has it that Titus won a game of dominoes to win the right to rename the town, which became Titusville in 1873. It was incorporated in 1887, at about the same time the railroads were built through the area. In the early part of the 20th century, the population began to grow. The 1950 census shows 2,604 people lived in Titusville. That number reached 6,410 in 1960 and 30,515 by 1970.

The area that is now Melbourne was first settled in the late 1860s. Originally known as Crane Creek, the settlement was named Melbourne when it was incorporated in 1888. Home to 2,677 people in 1950, the population had shot up to 40,236 by 1970.  Eau Gallie, which was founded in 1860, became part of Melbourne in 1969.

The town of Cocoa, located between Titusville and Melbourne on the Indian River, was settled by fisherman in about 1860. It was originally called Indian River City, but the U.S. Post Office rejected the name, saying it was too long to use on a postmark. In 1884, the name was changed to Cocoa and it was incorporated as such eleven years later. Its population was 3,098 in 1940, and rose to 12,244 in 1960.[6]

Cocoa Beach. Courtesy: Dennis Adams, Federal Highways Administration.

Cocoa Beach is on the Atlantic coast, east of Cocoa. It was originally known as Oceanus, and settled by freed slaves.[7] It remained undeveloped for decades. In 1925, it became known as Cocoa Beach, but it wasn’t incorporated for another thirty-one years. The 1930 census revealed the town had a population of 31. In 1950, it was 246 people. A decade later, it had shot up to 3,475, and by 1970 there were almost ten thousand people living in Cocoa Beach.

A lighthouse was first built at the Cape in 1848. It was relocated to its present site in 1894, where it stands today. At a distance, some people would later confuse it with one of the missiles being launched nearby.

The Banana River Naval Air Station circa 1947. US Navy photo.

In the late 1930s, with the threat of war growing, the U.S. Navy established the Banana River Naval Air Station. It was commissioned in 1940. Its primary mission was sending out coastal patrol planes, necessary because German U-Boats prowled the East Coast. In fact, two ships were torpedoed in 1942 off the coast of the Cape. The Navy deactivated the station in 1947, and it was transferred to the Air Force. It became the Joint Long Range Proving Ground in 1949, and then three months later was renamed Patrick Air Force Base in 1950.


[1] https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Merritt_Island/Early_History.html.aspx

[2] https://fshs.org/proceedings-o/1926-vol-39/234-237%20(BASS).pdf

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/01/us/01citrus.html

[4] Brevard County Landmark Guide 2016, https://www.brevardfl.gov/docs/default-source/Files/index-and-historic-markers/landmark-guide-2016.pdf

[5] https://www.spaceline.org/capehistory/1a.html

[6] http://www.cocoafl.org/908/History-Culture

[7] Parrish, Ada Edmiston; Field, Alma Clyde; Harrell, George Leland (2001). Merritt Island and Cocoa Beach. Charleston, SC: Arcadia. ISBN 0738506680.

Author: Michael W. Bay

Michael is a geek. He likes smart science-fiction, good coffee, playing the bass guitar, making up songs in the shower, cats and dogs and a nice, long Stephen King novel.

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