June 19, 2020
Merritt Island is located about 50 miles east of Orlando between the mainland and barrier island in Central East Florida between New Smyrna Beach and Melbourne. It is a unique place, unlike any other in Florida.
It is actually a peninsula that extends south for 62 miles from the mainland just south of Oak Hill to its tip, known locally as Dragon Point. What makes it unique is its combination of three Floridas:
Old Florida is represented by the huge wildlife refuge on the northern part of the island and the pioneer homes and cemeteries that remain in all parts of the island. It is also represented by the pioneer names on roads such as Crisafulli, Fortenberry, LaRoche, Mathers, Whaley, and many others.
Modern Florida is in the homes, schools, roads, bridges, and infrastructure that emerged in recent years. Merritt Island High School was founded in 1965. Many subdivisions were developed in the 1960s and are still being developed today.
Future Florida is discovered in the activities at the Kennedy Space Center that helps define Merritt Island. The Space Age's influence continues to influence not only Merritt Island, but the entire country.
Some people say they live "in" Merritt Island. Other folks say they live "on" Merritt Island. I use them interchangeably. When I lived in the urbanized central section, I said I lived "in" Merritt Island. A few years later when I moved to a quiet neighborhood in South Merritt Island, I said I lived "on" Merritt Island. Don't ask me why. To each his own.
Merritt Island is actually a peninsula that is joined to the mainland on its north end by a narrow strip of land that begins about three miles south of Oak Hill.
That strip of land was bisected by a shallow canal called Haulover back in the mid 1800s, and effectively turned Merritt Island into a real island until it was bridged many years later.
The Indian River Lagoon forms the western shoreline of Merritt Island for its entire length. Part of its eastern shore south of Oak Hill is that section of the Indian River Lagoon known as Mosquito Lagoon.
The Banana River forms most of the eastern shoreline of Merritt Island. It begins at Kennedy Space Center and extends to the southern tip of the island near Indian Harbour Beach and the Mathers Bridge that connects the peninsula to the barrier island.
The 12 foot deep Canaveral Barge Canal bisects the central area of Merritt Island and connects the Indian River to the Banana River.
Sykes Creek flows southward down the center of Merritt Island. It is a slow moving stream that begins in the marshes of North Merritt Island, crosses the Barge Canal, and flows south to the water between the Newfound Harbor peninsula and the main part of the island.
Merritt Island was part of a land grant from the King of Spain to a nobleman man named Merritt. It first showed up in 1605 in a map drawn by explorer Alvara Mexia. He found local tribes living in the area and he named them the Ulumay.
An early pioneer on north Merritt Island was Douglas Dummitt. He found some native citrus groves, planted some more, and began to ship fruit north in 1828. He is considered the father of the Indian River Citrus industry.
Fort Ann was built in 1837 near the present day site of the Haulover Canal to guard against Indian attacks during the Seminole Wars. The main purpose of the fort was to prevent Indian war canoes from being "hauled over" that narrow part of the island from the Mosquito Lagoon to the Indian River Lagoon.
After Dummitt died, an Italian nobleman named Eicole Tamajo, also known as the Duke of Castlellucia, bought the groves in 1881. He was married to Jennie Anheuser of the Budweiser beer family.
He built the castle to live happily ever after, but he and his wife didn't get along. They even partitioned the castle so she had her side and he had his. He finally said the hell with it and moved back to Italy in 1892.
The castle had 22 rooms and some of the timber used in its construction came from the sailing ship Santa Cruz which had been wrecked on the beach near Daytona. Two spiral stairways in the castle had masts from the ship as their center posts.
Most rooms were shaped like the castle itself: octagonal. The shape was chosen in the belief that it would stand up better to hurricanes.
Its location was on the far northern end of Merritt Island near Oak Hill.
The castle was relocated in the 1960s to Parrish Park in Titusville, but burned down in 1967 before it could be turned into a museum.
It is believed some teen age idiots set the fire. Locals probably know who did it, but they are keeping quiet.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s settlers began to homestead on Merritt Island. They came from all over the country and started small operations raising cattle, citrus, and other crops. There were small homesteads all along the length of the island.
More intense settling of North Merritt Island began in 1912. That was the year the area was opened for major settlement by United States President William Howard Taft. Prior to that, it had been a national forest.
The land had been used for grazing up to 2,000 cattle owned mostly by non-resident cattlemen. Disputes arose between the new settlers and the established cattle ranchers who let their animals roam wherever they wanted to. There were no fence laws at the time.
The main crop of Merritt Island from north to south was citrus. Groves were cultivated and tons of Indian River citrus was shipped to markets up north via water transportation. Many little towns on the Indian River served the citrus growers with sorting, packing, and shipping operations.
Merritt Island was heavily forested with pine trees in those days, and lumber also became an important industry. The area that is now the intersection of State Road 520 and State Road 3 in the heart of Merritt Island was a large sawmill owned and operated by the Fortenberry family.
The mile long Haulover Canal was excavated on North Merritt Island in 1888. It replaced an earlier one that had silted in at the location where earlier settlers and Indians had portaged their vessels.
The canal connected the Indian River to the Mosquito Lagoon near Allenhurst on North Merritt Island. This became a main route for shipping citrus and is still in use today as part of the Intracoastal Waterway.
In the early days before the first bridge was built to the mainland, travel and shipping was by boat along the Indian and Banana Rivers. Most travel back and forth to the mainland across the river was done in small sailboats.
The center of Merritt Island was first connected to the mainland at Cocoa in 1917. This bridge became an important transportation route from Central Florida into Merritt Island. Shortly after the bridge was completed, cattlemen on Merritt Island drove their cattle across it to the mainland and did a lot of damage as they went through the village of Cocoa.
A wooden bridge from Titusville to North Merritt Island was built in 1922. Many North Merritt Islanders did their business in Titusville for years because it was the closest "big town" with banks and other amenties.
A bridge to Cocoa Beach from Merritt Island was completed in 1923.
A road was constructed northeast of what is now the intersection of State Road 3 and Courtenay Parkway. Today that road is known as Palmetto Avenue.
It continued northeast along the route of what is now Audubon Road and crossed Sykes Creek on what was known locally as the "Humpback Bridge". Watts Park is located at what was once the southern approach to the Humpback Bridge.
From the bridge, it went east and connected with what is now Milford Point Drive at Margaret and Danny Stricland Park. Then it went south on Banana River Drive a bit more than halfway down the Newfound Harbor Peninsula.
A wooden bridge was built from that point across the Banana River to what is now Cocoa Beach near Minuteman Causeway. It is shown as the red route (original crossing) on the map above.
The bridge was taken down in 1941 when State Road 520 was completed. The map is by Mcmillen 76 at English Wikipedia - Public domain. USGS Background image. Current and previous route alignments by Gerald McMillen., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20830581
The Mathers bridge near the southern tip of Merritt Island was built in 1927. It was privately owned and charged a toll for years. The bridge has been replaced more than once, and is still a popular fishing spot for Brevard County residents and visitors.
For 52 years it was the location of the rustic Mather's Bridge Restaurant. This popular place closed in 1992. It burned down in later years and was not rebuilt. The site is now owned by Brevard County.
A drawbridge over Haulover Canal was built in 1933. This gave a land route from Merritt Island to Oak Hill, New Smyrna Beach and Daytona Beach.
Many of the North Merritt Island pioneers and their families are buried in the Old St. Luke's Episcopal Church cemetery in what was once the town of Courtenany. The church is near the western end of Crisafulli Road on North Tropical Trail.
Some family names are: Black, Ford, Jenkins, Knutson, LaRoche, Lamme, Porcher, Sams, and Whaley.
Many of the central and north Merritt Island pioneers and their families are buried in the Indianola Cemetery, also known as the Williams Cemetery nestled between the Barge Canal and State Road 528 west of State Road 3.
Some family names are: Buck, Crisafulli, Dunham, Field, Fortenberry, Humphrys, Nisbet, Norwood, Sanders, Smith, and Williams.
Many Central and South Merritt Island pioneers and their families are buried in the Crooked Mile Cemetery (also known as Georgiana Cemetery) on Crooked Mile Road just off South Tropical Trail near the old Methodist church.
Some family names are: Bower, Breese, Carter, Chandler, Cleveland, Deese, Down, Ensey, Hall, Harrell, LaRoche, Munson, Osteen, Praetorius, Provost, Ramsey, Stewart, Sumrall, Trafford, Wittfeld, and Wooten.
Things began to change forever on July 24, 1950, when a V-2 rocket named Bumper was launched from Canaveral Air Force Station. It was the beginning of the government programs of testing and launching rockets. New people began to move to Merritt Island to work on the program, and many of them lived in Merritt Island.
Port Canaveral was opened in 1953, and this provided access to the Atlantic Ocean. The 12 foot deep Canaveral Barge Canal canal was constructed from the Banana River to the Indian River across Merritt Island.
It's purpose was to provide passage to barges bringing fuel oil to the power plants on the Indian River. Local plants included two in Frontenac between Titusville and Cocoa. One was owned by Orlando Utilities Commission, the other by Florida Power and Light.
On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy made a speech to Congress in which he proposed that the United States commit to landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth. He proposed it be done within the decade of the 1960s.
Congress acted and the resulting moon launch program changed Merritt Island forever.
NASA began buying up land for what would become Kennedy Space Center, the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, and Canaveral National Seashore.
The land acquisition program began in 1962 and ended in 1964.
The map below shows the four stages of acquisition.
NASA eventually purchased more than 80,000 acres. They wanted plenty of land around the operation for security and safety reasons.
Residents living in the land purchase area had no choice. They had to sell their land and move off the property. Many who had owned beach houses for years had to sell them and move on.
Some of the citrus people were allowed to continue to work their groves, but most of them moved elsewhere on Merritt Island or to the mainland or beaches.
Many of the old towns were abandoned when the land was purchased. Some of them are shown on the map above. The ones within the boundaries of the goverment purchase were Shiloh, Allenhurst, Clifton, Wilson, Heath, Orsino, Courtenay, and Audubon.
The federal government's decision to land a man on the moon created huge problems for Merritt Island and the Brevard County government.
The population of Brevard County in 1960 was 111,435, spread primarily in areas around Titusville, Cocoa, and Melbourne. By 1970 the population had more than doubled to 230,006.
During this decade, it was the fastest growing county in the United States. Much of this growth was on Merritt Island.
There were not nearly enough homes and apartments in the area to handle the huge influx of aerospace workers. There were not enough schools, water supplies, wastewater treatement facilities, or roads.
Local government was left pretty much on its own to handle the problems. Zoning laws and building codes were inadequate at first to handle the coming boom.
Economics 101 kicked in and the huge demand attracted major developers who began to buy up land and build subdivisions.
Most of the first developments were in Central Merritt Island. Hampton Homes, a development north of State Road 520, is an early example.
Other early developments in Central Merritt Island created canal front lots on the west side of Sykes Creek. Some of them were Catalina Isle Estates, Sykes View Estates, and Diana Shores.
The east side of Sykes Creek is a large wetland area that has become a bird preserve and is known as Ulumay Wildlife Sanctuary. More canal front subdivisions were developed east of this wetland. Some of them are Surfside Estates, Vetter Isles, and Harbor Estates.
Merritt Island High School was founded in 1965 and soon became an academic and sports power in the state. Elementary schools were built, roads were improved and new ones were built.
The water system from Cocoa was increased in size to handle the growth. Wastewater treatment plants were typically built by a developer to service his subdivision.
The Hubert Humprey bridge was built in 1968, increasing the traffic capacity on State Road 520 from Cocoa to Merritt Island.
A large orange grove was leveled and swamp land filled to create Merritt Square Mall, which opened in 1970 with three anchor stores: J.C. Penney, Ivey's, and Jordan Marsh.
Apollo 11 landed on the moon on July 20, 1969. There were a total of six manned moon landings between 1969 and 1972. President Kennedy's challenge had been met and the entire country was proud.
But there was a cost to Merritt Island that would soon have to be paid. In the year after the moon landing, employment at Kennedy Space Center dropped from 23,500 to 16,500. In the next two years further drastic personnel cuts devastated the local economy.
Former aerospace engineers and technicians were lucky to find jobs delivering pizza or working in convenience stores. Many of them left the area and many of them also changed careers. They couldn't pay their bills, including house payments.
Thousands of almost new homes went into foreclosure. Some houses were sold on the courthouse steps for almost nothing. Retirees began to flock into the area to snap up the bargains.
A walk through the Merritt Square Mall was depressing with most of the shops having closed for lack of customers.
In my opinion, Merritt Island has three distinct areas: North Merritt Island, Central Merritt Island, and South Merritt Island.
North Merritt Island is north of State Road 528 and the Canaveral Barge Canal. It is not as heavily populated as the rest of the island, and extends northward to the NASA property. Its homes typically have larger lots and numerous small horse friendly estates. Many people who work at Kennedy Space Center drive north on State Road 3 (Courtenay Parkway) into its south gate.
Central Merritt Island is the area from the Barge Canal all the way south to the neighborhood of South Merritt Estates. This area is where most of the population of Merritt Island is concentrated. Of the 35,000 people who live on Merritt Island, probably half of them live in the Central Area. This area also includes the Newfound Harbor peninsula that juts down on the east side of Merritt Island with the Banana River on its east and Sike Creek on its west.
South Merritt Island extends all the way south to the tip of the island. The homes get larger and more expensive along this route because many of them are on the Indian River or the Banana River.
One beautiful feature of this part of the island is Honeymoon Lake and Honeymoon Hill which overlooks it. This is the highest hill on Merritt Island.
The scenic drive along South Tropical Trail from the Pineda Causeway to the Mathers Bridge is one of the most beautiful in Florida.
The economy of Merritt Island has diversified, but the space program and employment at Kennedy Space Center are still key components of the economy.
The Space Shuttle program at Kennedy Space Center began to gather momentum in the late 1970s and the first manned shuttle flight, known as STS-1, was launched in 1981. Employment related to this program began to help the economy of Brevard County and Merritt Island recover.
A setback was the tragic explosion of the Shuttle Challenger in 1986. The program was suspended for almost three years before resuming in 1988. Many more employees were laid off during this 32 month period, not only at the Space Center, but from local businesses too.
In the years since then, Merritt Island has continued to develop many new residential subdivisions. Many of them have been in Central and South Merritt Island along Courtenay Parkway and South Tropical Trail.
The main commercial corridors along Courtenay Parkway and State Road 520 are busy, with many restaurants, shops, motels, and service businesses. Merritt Square Mall is healthy again, and things are looking good for Merritt Island.
Port Canaveral has become one of the busiest cargo and cruise ship ports in Florida, and this has helped the island economically and created many new places to dine out or find employment.
The Merritt Island Redevelopment Agency has spearheaded a lot of work to beautify the corridors and neighborhoods along Courtenay Parkway and State Road 520.
The main internal roads on Merritt Island are:
State Road 3 and County Road 3 from Kennedy Space Center south for the length of the island. It is known locally as Courtenay Parkway. This corridor continues south and merges with South Tropical Trail and goes almost to the tip of Merritt Island at the Mathers Bridge.
Tropical Trail is a historic route that runs from Courtenay near the southern boundary of the space center all the way to the tip of the island at the Mathers Bridge. North of State Road 520 it is referred to as North Tropical Trail, and south of that it is called South Tropical Trail until it reaches the Mathers Bridge near the tip of Merritt Island.
Banana River Drive runs south from State Road 528 and extends all the way to Horti Point near the southern tip of the Newfound Harbor Peninsula.
State Road 528 is a toll road that runs east across Merritt Island just south of the Barge Canal and is combined with State Road A1A as it enters into Port Canaveral and Cape Canaveral.
State Road 520 runs east from the Indian River across Merritt Island and the Banana River to Cocoa Beach. It is Merritt Island's main commercial corridor, known locally as Merritt Island Causeway.
The saddest news - typical of most of Florida - is that the thousands of acres of citrus groves and pine forests are mostly gone, replaced by modern homes, apartments, and businesses.
Annie, the dragon who gave Dragon Point its name, is also gone. There are plans to build another dragon named Rojak. A new dragon will be a metaphor for Merritt Island: rising, falling, and rising again.
The island is connected in many ways now to the mainland and beach communities. It is no longer isolated, but still gives you the feeling of being on an island when you realize you are surrounded by water.
Their are seven ways to get onto Merritt Island by car. They are, from North to South:
State Road 3 that branches off from U.S.-1 south of Oak Hill. It comes across Haulover Canal into the Kennedy Space Center and the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.
County Road 402, known locally as the A. Max Brewer Memorial Highway, into the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and Canaveral National Seashore on North Merritt Island. The road begins in Titusville.
State Road 405, known locally as the NASA Causeway, goes into the Space Center and through its Visitor Center. It begins on the mainland between Titusville and Cocoa.
State Road 528, known as the Beachline Expressway, comes into the island just south of the barge canal and becomes combined with State Road A1A. It extends across the Banana River to Port Canaveral.
State Road 520 crosses the Indian River between Cocoa and Central Merritt Island. It extends across the island to Cocoa Beach.
State Road 404, known locally as the Pineda Causeway, connects the mainland near the Suntree development to Merritt Island and then crosses the Banana River to State Road A1A just north of Patrick Air Force Base.
Mathers Bridge at the end of South Tropical Trail near Dragon Point connects Merritt Island to Indian Harbour Beach.
MORE ABOUT THE MERRITT ISLAND AREA