Pre-Millenial Merritt Island and the Banana River Lagoon
by Captain Richard Bradley
County and City businessmen along with government officials lobbied for a change in Brevard County with the vision to bolster the economy and bring jobs in 1940. Their efforts brought the Naval Air Station Banana River to the community. Before 1940 the land adjacent to the Banana River were small settlements built around agriculture and fishing opportunities. The roaring twenties and it’s prosperity allowed a casino, boardwalk, and hotels on Cocoa Beach, but the depression of the thirties brought a decade of little economic movement as with much of the United States.
Merritt Island had a tiny population, and Cocoa Beach was a long drive on a wooden bridge across the clear Lagoon. Soft sandy roads greeted the arrival of the beach tourist, and most vehicles equipped themselves with planks and tools for traveling the rutty unpaved roads. With the newly commissioned Naval Air Station, Brevard immediately felt the economic impact. Employment had people spending money, buying more provisions and making infrastructure for roads and bridges needed to service the small base.
Pearl Harbor Attack
The NAS Banana River was allotted one seaplane and remained very small until one epic event, the infamous day that changed everything and accelerated progress and development on this sleepy lagoon.
The day was December 7, 1941, “A day that will live in infamy.” It was the starting gun that transformed our bedroom community to a bustling waterfront town in a few short years. The federal government paved roads, built bridges and brought a new population of people seeking employment and opportunities to the new Naval Air Base. Supplying the war ignited the local economy with Florida’s citrus production passing California’s within three years. Whether we liked it or not change was upon us and the growth would be exponential in the coming 25 years as the base provided the catalyst for a guided missile testing range and put Cape Canaveral on the history map as the launching place to the moon.
The Banana River is not a river as its name suggest, it’s a saltwater lagoon that is filled by the ebb and flow of the ocean tides at natural and man-made inlets along the coastline. This lagoon has been witness to the calm water canoes of the Ais Indians and modern fuel barges cutting across the dredged waterway and seagrass beds that once spanned across her whole width.
Progress has been good to the Brevard County people, but this same progress has strained the life of the lagoon over the years. In a few short decades, we’ve emptied our sewers, allowed stormwater runoff to fill our large bays to the point where it cannot sustain the byproducts of fertilizer nitrates and petroleum products that run from our yards, streets, roofs and parking lots. Many parts of the Indian River near Melbourne are no longer productive fishing grounds as less than a half of century of development has eliminated seagrass beds vital to marine life. Responsible conservation is the only hope for the immediate survival of the central and lower parts of the Banana River lagoon.
The Space Race and Men on the Moon
During the 1950’s much of Merritt Island and all of Cape Canaveral was annexed and claimed as part of the Missile Range and later dedicated to NASA and it’s endeavors to put a man on the moon and explore space. Entire towns and settlements immediately uprooted, and their inhabitants were displaced. Merritt Island was now officially a united community as State Road 3 connected the Space Center with newly constructed residential areas and housing for NASA employees. Consequently, the NAS Banana River was decommissioned after the war and almost immediately recommissioned as Patrick Air Force Base in 1947. Settlements like Audubon and Angel City are no longer recognized as settlements and absorbed into Merritt Island as an all-encompassing town and unincorporated city.
Manned space flight was heralded in during the late 1950’s, and a new young president Kennedy pointed men toward the moon declaring in 1962, “By the end of this decade, we will put a man on the moon,” and so we did.
It is also where my story begins, I was born in 1962 as a military brat and moved permanently to Merritt Island after a brief stint in Panama’s canal zone and Dad’s shift in branch’s from an Air Force Officer to the Army. Dad’s change in service required a year-long tour in Vietnam that left his wife and family to the newly formed Space Coast and a burgeoning new community that was springing to life and rapidly changing.
As a child, I witnessed what much of the county watched on their black and white and new fangled color television sets. I saw every Apollo manned Saturn V Rocket launch from my hometown and several of them from my father’s boat on the Banana River Lagoon. The Apollo rockets that lifted off from Cape Canaveral in the 60’s and 70’s made all other missiles including the space shuttle seem minuscule. They ROCKED! Of course, we continued watching moon missions from our homes and classrooms as the rest of the world watched Neil Armstrong take his first step on the moon. Living on the space coast was fabulous, and fishing with my father and family was the pinnacle of enjoyment in my childhood.
Little did I know that the crystal clear waters of the Banana River would fade slowly with the continued development on the adjacent barrier Islands. As a child, I remember riding the boat bow and seeing miles of thick seagrass and shallow water flats. Today’s lagoon is a shadow of its former self, but there seems to be a glimmer of hope as wildlife management and conservation efforts are helping in many respects. As I’ve stated before, “stormwater runoff is the biggest threat to the shallow water lagoons on Florida’s coastline.” We can manage the wildlife and fish, but if we ruin their habitat, there will be no hope left for our precious sea life.
With coming and goings’ of the Space program, the tide has ebbed for much of the growth around the Banana River Lagoon since the 1980’s. There’s been an economic shift for employment with the arrival of tourism and retirees seeking sunshine and leisure. The corridor between Orlando and the coastline has shortened to a thirty-minute drive. Therefore, many people visiting famous theme parks, and tourist attractions take time out of their vacation schedules to visit the beach and take a day to go fishing near Orlando or beach combing on the Banana River Lagoon.
NOTE: Since I originally wrote this article in 2008, we’ve witnessed the collapse of the Banana River Lagoon and my childhood playground. Efforts to clean up the waterway seem futile, I’ve moved much of my fishing charters to the Mosquito Lagoon and Sebastian Inlet where healthier fish populations exist.
Captain Richard Bradley
Charter Fishing Captain/Guide
Being a husband and father to three incredible women my life overflows with joy. As a lifelong resident and third generation Floridian, my passion is not only my family but the outdoors. It has been a great pleasure to take my family, friends, and customers on fishing excursions on Florida's east coast where I grew up for over five decades.
I love sharing my experiences and writing about my knowledge of where I live and often mix in my opinions and journeys. Please feel free to comment on my writings and express your views and experiences as well.