The first inhabitants of Melbourne Beach were most likely the Ais, or Ays, a tribe of Native Americans who inhabited the Atlantic Coast of Florida in pre-Columbian times. The Ais lived in villages and towns along the shores of the great lagoon called Rio de Ais by the Spanish, and now called the Indian River. [Observations on the appearance, diet and customs of the Ais at the end of the 17th century are found in Jonathan Dickinson’s Journal.
It has been suggested that Juan Ponce de León landed near Melbourne Beach in 1513, where he then became the first European to set foot in Florida. A determination of this was made by a historian in the 1990s, who believed that the spot was “within five to eight nautical miles” on the barrier island with a proposed name of Ponce de León Island. However, this suggestion has not been met with wide acceptance from historians who state that de Leon’s landing place cannot be known within a leeway of less than a hundred miles or so.
Present day Melbourne Beach happened in the grand tradition of 19th century capitalism. It happened as a commercial venture in the grand tradition of the 19th century capitalism. It was the tradition of settling virgin lands (rattlesnake infested scrub), planting crops (pineapples), and fending off the enemy (mosquitoes). People invested and came to our town for a dream, for a hope, for restored health, for the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. A few found their Eldorado during these early years. Most did not.
In 1883, a Yankee veteran, Major Cyrus Graves, began buying government land comprising present-day Melbourne Beach for the modest sum of $1.25 an acre. He and others who formed a stock company planned a resort that would fully equal or surpass Palm Beach and Daytona Beach which at that time were also in the planning stages. In the meantime, he and other investors successfully went into the business of growing pineapples on their beach property.
During the winter of 1888-1889, present day Ocean Avenue was grubbed and cleared, the huge palmetto brush piles being burned on the spot. A pier, identical to the present day one was constructed and a railroad soon ran the length of Ocean Avenue and out onto the pier. The present 12-inch artesian well was drilled at the river, while a bathhouse was constructed on ocean where Sands Restaurant now stands. The Melbourne and Atlantic Railroad, pointing straight as an arrow east and west up Ocean Avenue, ran one modest pushcar. Later, in 1909, the newly incorporated Melbourne Beach Improvement Company purchased an eight- passenger gasoline powered Buda motor tram, with trailer, and erected the quaint structure that later became our Town Hall and Post Office and today proudly serves as the Town History Center.
One should remember that Melbourne Beach was the only access to the ocean for many miles in either direction unless one hacked his way through the brush. No streets of any kind were built on the island until incorporation in 1923. Transportation across the river was provided by Beaujean’s ferry, the earliest family to settle. It would dock on the finger of the pier and passengers and supplies could be loaded onto the tram for the journey up Ocean Avenue.
During the winter of 1888-1889 the first house, Myrtle Cottage, was erected. It stood at the northeast corner of Ocean Avenue and Pine Street. In 1892 the Community Chapel was built just west of it. Homes built during the 1890’s and still standing are at 522 and 517 Ocean Avenue, 905 Riverside Drive (then River Road), and 325 Avenue A. The Villa Marine, a hotel, was built in 1912. It still stands at the corner of Ocean Avenue and Riverside Drive.
20th Century to Today
Through there were successive grunts of activity, as in 1912 when the Villa Marine was constructed, life remained quiet and serene and primitive. A few dozen winter visitors might come over on the ferry during “the season” their main diversion perhaps riding back and forth from the river to ocean on the tram. Crosstie walking contests were popular. Our town did not exactly boom, though after World War 1 when the toll bridge from Melbourne to Indialantic was constructed (which was just being settled), a boom of sorts did occur, in common with the rest of Florida at this time. Incorporated in 1923 for the purpose of floating bonds for street paving, our town finally opened to the automobile age. Besides A1A, the shell road that linked Indialantic with Melbourne Beach, for many years thereafter the only streets in town were Ocean Avenue, Atlantic Street as far as Third Avenue, and River Road (now Riverside Drive) between Second Avenue and Sunset Boulevard.
A great deal of land speculation occurred, with such companies as Indian and Atlantic Ocean Homes, Gulf Stream Land Company, and Melbourne Beach Estates doing their share. At this time an oceanfront business called the Casino had a glass-enclosed second story. Here the salesmen would gather with their potential customers. From this vantage point one could see the whole area. It is not too difficult to imagine the cajolery, the backslapping, the expensive cigars, the wheeling and dealing: “Why over there,” would say the salesman, expansively pointing in the direction of a certain portion of rattlesnake infested scrub, “over there will be our Drug Store. And beside it, why, we already have a definite commitment for a Buick Motor Car Agency and . . . What’s that? When will the street be put in? Well now, my boy, I see you lack faith, you lack vision, why just next week we’ve been promised—.”
But the Boom busted, the bottom broke, investors were ruined, and the town government came very close to following suit. In 1933 only $609.00 was collected in taxes. It was said that in those Depression days a dog could lie all day in the middle of Ocean Avenue and not a soul would come by to disturb him. Weedsgrew in the streets, their wooden curbs disappearing under a blanket of sandspurs. The little town slept, like Rip Van Winkle, for 20 years.
World War II startled us awake with the sinking of merchant ships by German U-boats in early 1942. While burning vessels lit up the eastern night sky, our fewer than 100 apprehensive residents found great relief with the War Department’s hurried construction of nearby Banana River Naval Air Station and Melbourne Naval Air Station.
The development of our nation’s Rocket Program at Cape Canaveral beginning in the late 1950’s wrought enormous change to surrounding areas. Our town’s measured response to that change is a credit to the cultural values of newcomers over the past 50 years. In spite of growth all around us, a busy two-lane state road jogging through town, and the necessity to finally install a stoplight, we retain a wonderful illusion of the past, of stability and simplicity. Everything one needs is within walking distance, and bicycles are everywhere. Today 3,314 of the most contented people on earth think of Melbourne Beach as “Our Town”.