Historic Preservation

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Two Cities Become One

Two neighboring communities that were established where freshwater tributaries flow into the Indian River Lagoon began to attract a growing number of settlers in the late 1800's. The two communities were to become the cities of Melbourne and Eau Gallie.

The importance of the Indian River Lagoon to settlers as an avenue of commerce and communication is pointed out by a plaque in a small Melbourne park overlooking the Indian River Lagoon. The plaque reads: "To honor Peter Wright, early settler. A black freedman, the legendary sailing mailman, (who) sailed regularly from Titusville to Malabar to deliver mail to riverside settlements. Peter Wright, like others who came after him, made his home in an area that provided easy access to a harbor as well as fertile soil.

The wilderness presented opportunities that fueled relocations following the Civil War. For more than a half-century the two cities matured side by side as populations grew, similar in many ways but also with distinct personalities.

In 1969, with the approval of a majority of voters, Melbourne and Eau Gallie were consolidated into the contemporary City of Melbourne. The history of Melbourne is the story of each of those original communities along with the record of progress that has been made since 1969 by the contemporary City of Melbourne.

Reflections of the Past

Melbourne today features two "old" downtown areas — Historic Downtown Melbourne and Olde Eau Gallie — each with specialty shops and other attractions. Other commercial areas have developed over the years, including the busy area along Babcock Street. One of the earliest commercial areas was located along Front Street at the lagoon edge, and today is only a memory. A fire roared through the district at a time when commercial interests were already being drawn westward by the railway.

Before that, in the late 1800's, much of Melbourne's commercial activity was conducted in wooden buildings clustered along Front Street, located just north of Melbourne Harbor. Several piers jutted into the Lagoon to receive goods and travelers. Even in the evenings, the downtown activities lit up the shoreline as the steamboat "Rockledge" arrived with passengers.

New arrivals were greeted by the pungent odor of burning insect powder. Nearby were the "Trysting Stairs," a wooden stairway leading up a bluff at the north end of Front Street. The stairs, which provided a convenient way to reach residences situated on higher ground, became an informal meeting place which was especially popular among young people in love.

That scene of pioneering enterprise and social interaction began to change after the railroad arrived in 1893. The lagoon began to lose its attraction as a transportation route. Gradually, businesses were drawn toward the iron tracks perched on high ground a few blocks to the west. Then, in 1919, the original downtown area was changed forever. A tenant in a waterfront boarding house tossed a kerosene heater out of a second-story window, reportedly after someone shot it full of holes. The heater ignited the wooden sidewalk along Front Street. A strong wind fanned the flames, and the downtown area was quickly consumed.

Origins of the Melbourne, Florida, Name

The area began to be called "Melbourne" eight years before the town was officially established. A name was needed because a post office was being established to serve families in the area. The first postmaster, Cornthwaite John Hector, was an Englishman who spent much of his life in Melbourne, Australia, before opening a general store at Crane Creek. Credited with suggesting the Melbourne name, however, was Mrs. R.W. Goode. Hector is said to have favored a different name. Although there is more than one version of how the naming was accomplished, it appears that straws representing various names were drawn. The "Melbourne" straw was the one drawn.

On the morning of Dec. 22, 1888, a group of 23 qualified electors gathered to create the "Village of Melbourne" by a spoken vote, gaining the benefits provided to towns under Florida law. By evening, those pioneer settlers had elected their first officers and had settled on a corporate seal. It depicted a pineapple plant, along with a crane and a palmetto tree.

Up to that time, the small community located on a natural harbor of the Indian River Lagoon had been known as "Crane Creek." The name reflected the importance of the harbor, formed where a freshwater creek flowed into the saltwater lagoon. At the time, barge traffic north and south along the lagoon was vital for the latest arrivals on the peninsula.

Pilot Training Aids War Effort

The Melbourne Naval Air Station was commissioned as an operational training unit on Oct. 20,1942. The station, located on property that is now part of the Melbourne International Airport, was used for training newly commissioned Navy and Marine pilots.

Before the base closed on February 15, 1946, more than 2,200 pilots were trained in Grumman F4F Wilcat and F6F Hellcat fighter planes. Of the pilots trained, 63 died in aerial accidents and two enlisted men died in ground-related accidents.

On Oct. 20, 2001, a State historical marker was dedicated to the honor of all military personnel as well as civilian workers who served at NAS Melbourne. The dedication especially honors the 65 men who died at the station in performance of their duty.

Those who served at NAS Melbourne and personnel who have served in all military branches are honored at the Melbourne Military Memorial Park. The park is located between Hickory and Oak Streets, adjacent to the Honor America Inc., museum, and was dedicated on Memorial Day 2003.