BREVARD HISTORY: Port Canaveral is Culmination of a Long Awaited Dream, Geographically Significant for Centuries
By Space Coast Daily // July 23, 2023
PART ONE OF A FIVE PART SERIES
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of a five-part series about the history of Port Canaveral. Geographically significant for centuries, and from its early days of conception as an actual inlet to the Atlantic in the 1870s, the port now plays a major role in the business and commerce of the entire region. In this first installment of a five-part series, SpaceCoastDaily.com takes a look at the conception, initial funding, construction and opening of Port Canaveral during the years 1929–1962.
BREVARD COUNTY • PORT CANAVERAL, FLORIDA – It was the culmination of a long-awaited dream and a cause for great celebration when, on November 4, 1953, Port Canaveral officially was dedicated.
Flags were flying and bands playing. Five thousand pounds of fried mullet, 300 pounds of baked beans, 500 gallons of coleslaw and 20 gallons of pickles were consumed.
United States Senator Spessard Holland made the principal address, calling it “Our nation’s port for inner and outer space.”
Later, as darkness fell, the festivities moved inland with two formal balls held at the Indian River Hotel in Rockledge and the American Legion Hall in Cocoa.
HISTORICALLY SIGNIFICANT FOR CENTURIES
Cape Canaveral has been significant historically for centuries, as it is the oldest geographical name still in use in the Western Hemisphere.
The Smithsonian Institution included an account of the naming of Cape Canaveral in their 1992 traveling exhibition celebrating the 500th anniversary of the voyage of Christopher Columbus.
According to the exhibit, Cape Canaveral, translated as “Place of the Cane Bearers”, was named by Spanish Cape explorer Francisco Gordillo after he was shot by an Ais arrow made of cane.
It was in 1520 that a Spanish ship with Captain Gordillo in charge sent a small party of men ashore. They were attacked by Indians using arrows made of the cane growing there, inspiring Gordillo to name the place Capo de Canaveral, or “Place of the Cane Bearers.”
Although maps containing the rough geographic boundaries of Cape Canaveral, albeit without a name, are dated as early as 1502, Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon has been credited with first exploring the region in 1513.
His second landing in Florida was just south of Cape Canaveral, probably near the present-day town of Melbourne Beach.
LITTLE ECONOMIC VALUE
More than 360 years later, in 1878, the Department of the Navy asked Congress to create a deepwater port at Canaveral, but the proposal was rejected because it had little economic value.
Six more attempts were made throughout the years to get the harbor dug, but it was not until 1929 that the United States Engineers Office in Jacksonville found justification for the project and approved it.
The original charter in 1939 established a seven-member board of port commissioners but it was not until 1941 that the Port Authority was authorized to advertise the levying of a tax with a three mill cap within the Port District, which consisted of an area bounded in the south by present-day Pineda Causeway and in the north by the southern boundary of the City of Titusville.
In 1945, Congress approved the construction as part of the Rivers and Harbors Improvement Program and, a year later, appropriated $830,000 for construction with the proviso the amount be matched through “local interest.”
Voters Say “Yes!” to Canaveral Harbor
Selling the idea of a port was not an easy task, but many community leaders with vision worked hard to make it a reality. Fishermen especially were eager to see it happen and worked hard to get it approved because it would be such a quick outlet to the ocean. The closest other inlets were Ft. Pierce and Mayport (Jacksonville).
In November 1947, freeholders of the Port District went to the polls and overwhelmingly approved a bond issue that would pave the way for the digging of Port Canaveral.
There had been rumors circulating that opponents of the Port would attempt to keep voters away from the polls, so J. J. Jackson, attorney for the Port Authority, enlisted the aid of his son, Edward, (who succeeded his father as Port counsel in 1971) and some of his friends on the Cocoa High School football team.
They made themselves available to escort hesitant voters from their cars to the polling places so they could cast their ballots without incident.
On December 1 of that year, the Port Authority issued $1,365,999 in bonds for construction of the harbor, channel and Barge Canal; and on June 6, 1950, a dredge started cutting a path east from the middle of the Indian River to the Port site.
Most of the dredge spoil was used later to construct the Bennett Causeway that linked the Port and beaches to the Central Florida area, but some of it wound up creating landfill for many of the buildings which occupy the Banana River shoreline in Cape Canaveral.
Roger Dobson, a former Brevard County Commissioner, who was born on the Cape and who grew up in a commercial fishing family, was away at college during the digging of the Port, but he remembers a harrowing experience on one of his vacations at home.
While duck hunting one morning, he waded out in the Banana River and found himself slowly sinking into the mud. Known as “blue mud” to the locals, this was a layer of deep spoil deposited on top of the fine sand the dredges had first turned up.
“It was a scary thing,” he said. “It was like quicksand and I had no way of knowing how deep it was. And I guess my boots are still out there to this day.”
ATLANTIC OCEAN MERGES WITH BANANA RIVER
In October 1951, a bulldozer cut through from the harbor to the sea and the waters of the Atlantic Ocean began to merge with those of the Banana River as the tides finished the job. Commercial fishermen began to use the new deepwater Port immediately and were delighted to be able to harvest cold water tuna and swordfish for the first time.
Sara Nisbet, the widow of Port Commissioner David Nisbet, remembers that the first bridge across the Barge Canal on North Courtenay Parkway was not a bridge at all.
“It actually was a barge,” she says, “anchored in place at each end so it could be moved aside if boats needed to come through. The banks of the new canal were sloped so that cars could drive down to the water level and cross on the barge to the other side, but it was a bit precarious and school bus drivers wouldn’t even attempt it.”
In fact, school buses drove the children who lived north of the canal on Merritt Island to Titusville and back down to Cocoa until the barge was replaced with a real bridge in the 1960s.
Trucks hauling fruit from the citrus growers north of the canal suffered a similar inconvenience because it was impossible for them to navigate the barge crossing.
MONEY TIGHT IN EARLY DAYS
The first employee of the Port was Barbara Smith, who celebrated her 50th anniversary of employment in 2001; and the first revenue received by Port Canaveral was a check for $4,000 from Joseph Luley, president of the Canaveral Corporation.
Chairman Noah B. Butt accepted it in 1951 as payment on the first annual “readiness to serve” charge made by the Port Authority.
An agreement with Luley provided for construction of an oil tank farm adjacent to the Port and the laying of a pipeline from the farm to the 400-foot marginal wharf that would be completed two years later.
Money was tight in the early days of Port Canaveral, with most funding coming from taxes levied. In 1941, the operating budget was $7,494.12, all of which came from a tax levy of one mill.
By its dedication year, the budget had grown to $53,500, with a tax levy of three mills producing $38,000.
Only $15,500 came from operating income, primarily from tenants. By 1956, the budget had grown to $64,818 with $20,000 from earned income.
Noah B. Butt, Jr. remembers that once during the Port’s early operation, his father, Chairman Butt, and Port Commissioner Nisbet had to go to the bank to guarantee personally the payroll checks because there was so little money in the operating account.
“My dad was often called ‘Mr. Canaveral’,” said Butt, “and he would be amazed if he could see it today. It is bigger and better than he ever could have imagined.”
Dobson had a chance to overwhelm his grandfather, one of the early lighthouse keepers at Cape Canaveral, with a sight of the Port shortly after it was opened. He picked him up at a nursing home and drove him to the edge of the harbor on what is now North Atlantic Avenue in Cape Canaveral.
“When he saw it,” said Dobson, “he was speechless. He kept saying over and over, ‘I don’t believe it; I just don’t believe it finally has happened.’”
In February 1952, the construction of a 400-foot fishing dock was approved but before it was finished, it was ordered extended another 200 feet.
Dock space was leased to Hudgins Fish Company, Fischers’ Seafood, Cook and Lewis, S. Salvador and Sons, the Cove Fish Market, and Bennett’s Seafood Market, which also was granted a license to sell fishing supplies, bait and tackle, and food. Leases cost $1,200 per year. That same year Thomas R. Stuart was appointed the Port’s first harbormaster and pilot.
NEW GOVERNANCE STRUCTURE BRINGS GROWTH
In 1953, the governance structure of the Port changed. The seven-member board authorized by the original charter had consisted of county commissioners from districts one, two and five; the mayors of the City of Cocoa and the City of Rockledge; and elected representatives from precincts 12 and 22.
Nisbet, who had won his county commission seat on a write-in ballot, realized that the system of governance was making the Port a political football, so he became the driving force in getting the system changed.
The new charter provided for five separate Port districts with an elected commissioner from each. The first five to serve under the new rule were Butt, Nisbet, L. M. Carpenter, A. A. Dunn and G. W. Laycock.
The five new commissioners authorized jetty construction immediately with a Congressional appropriation of $610,000, and in 1955, the new harbor got its first visit from a cargo ship.
The S/S Mormac Spruce, under charter to Military Sealift Command, docked at the Marginal Wharf and loaded cargo from Patrick Air Force Base destined for St. Lucia in the British West Indies.
By 1955, Fruit Industries, Inc. had a processing plant and cold storage tanks with a one million gallon capacity at the Port. The Cocoa Tribune held the presses for its August 26th issue in order to print news of the lease-signing for the $2 million dollar plant. The years 1957 and 1958 saw big plans for new growth at the Port.
A resolution was passed and lobbying began at the Federal level for the Canaveral Lock, so necessary if the harbor was to serve industry throughout the entire Port taxing district and materially benefit the entire county.
The state legislature was asked to approve the construction of the new Bennett Causeway (State Road 528). Property was sold to the United States Air Force on the north side of the Port for $710,000, and the first cargo shipment of steel arrived on the MS Anvers — 800 tons of it to be used in the construction of guided missile assembly plants at the Cape Canaveral Launch Area.
A fuel and ice dock was created and a 100-foot addition to the warehouse on the south side was completed. In the remaining years of its first decade, the Port entered into an accelerated period of expansion.
The program for 1959-60 included plans for an office building onsite for the Port Authority, a petroleum unloading facility, more warehouse facilities and a 200-foot extension to the wharf, for a total financial commitment of $500,000.
Ad valorem taxes were set for only one mill and the budget had grown to $205,700, with nearly one-third of it from operating income. Port Canaveral was moving steadily away from taxation and toward financial independence.
THE FIRST MISSILE LAUNCHES
It also was in 1960 that the Port played its first role in the nation’s defense program with the firing of two Polaris missiles from 30 miles offshore, heading on a course downrange.
It was the first of many such firings in the development of the guided-missile program, including the Polaris, Poseidon and Trident missiles.
The year 1961 was important in the progress of the growing harbor.
Port Canaveral became a port of entry in April and no longer was dependent on Customs and Immigration services from the Port of Palm Beach or Miami.
During that year, land was leased to the United States Coast Guard for a sea/air rescue station.
In June 1961, the first meeting of the Port Authority was held on-site at the new administration building. It had been built at a cost of $31,728, with an additional $7,519 spent for paving, grading and planting grass.
The following year, the sand transfer plant at the north jetty was authorized by the Federal Rivers and Harbors Act of October 23, 1962.
Port commissioners, realizing that the sand transfer plant would be an essential part of maintaining the entrance channel and preserving the beaches south of the jetties, had worked hard to get this legislation through Congress.
Unfortunately, it still would be more than a decade before it would be operational. And that same year, longtime Port Commissioner W.O.B. Chittenden resigned due to ill health.
In his letter of resignation, he wrote, “It is my opinion that this East Coast Port will someday be one of the nation’s most important.” If he were alive today, he would be amazed to know just how accurate that prediction would prove to be.
CLICK HERE FOR PART I: Port Canaveral Culmination of Long-Awaited Dream
CLICK HERE FOR PART II: McLouth Leads Port Canaveral Into Its 2nd Decade
CLICK HERE FOR PART III: A Growing Port For a Growth Market — The Third Decade
(Content was derived in part from Canaveral Port Authority’s “Staying the Course”)