The Commodore turns 164 years old
Ralph Middleton “Commodore” Munroe is one of Coconut Grove’s earliest settlers and was a successful businessman, yacht designer, avid yachtsman, photographer, author, naturalist and prominent Coconut Grove resident.
Munroe was born on April 3, 1851 in New York. Raised in Staten Island, Munroe was a descendant to William Munroe, who created the first lead pencil and manufactured it shortly after the war of 1812.
While growing up, Munroe was influenced by conservationist Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson that taught him the importance of preservation.
After attending military school, he enrolled at Columbia University in New York to study drafting that later helped him with his yacht designs.
As a young man, he was fascinated with boats and at the age of 26 jumped at an opportunity to sail to Key West, Florida with relatives in 1877. Along the way they sailed past Biscayne Bay and discovered the beautiful wilderness beside the coast and the inhabitants alongside the Miami River. Munroe took notice of the mild climate, subtropical landscapes, and friendly people he met in South Florida.
Upon his return to New York, Munroe met Eva Hewitt and the couple was married in 1879. A year later they had a baby girl. Sadly, Eva Munroe developed tuberculosis. Per the advice of the doctor to take her to a warmer climate, Munroe brought his wife, along with her sister, who was also sick, and her brother to Miami, Florida where he remembered the weather was warm. The baby remained with her grandmother in New York.
There he setup camp along the north bank of the Miami River in hopes that his wife would recover, but despite his effort, the illness claimed both Eva and her sister in 1882. Another tragedy came into his life upon his return to New York. His baby daughter had passed away from influenza.
Munroe returned to South Florida later that year along with his brother-in-law. Together they helped their friends, the Peacocks, build Coconut Groves first hotel on the shore of Biscayne Bay called the Bay View Villas (later changed to the Peacock Inn) and it opened the following winter.
For several years later, Munroe would split his time between New York and South Florida, often staying at the Bay View Villa until his decision in 1886 to make Coconut Grove his permanent residence. He purchased 40 Acres of Bayfront hammock (tropical hardwood forest) land for $400 and one of his sailboats valued at $400. A total purchase price of $800.
In 1887, Munroe built a boat house that became his home, workshop and favorite gathering spot for the local sailing community. Soon after the construction of the boat house, a group of residence created the Biscayne Bay Yacht Club (still in operation today) and elected Munroe as Commodore, a title he held for 22 years. His boat house became the initial home of the newly founded club. Within those 22 years, Munroe designed over 55 different boats. His last surviving vessel, Micco, was destroyed by hurricane Andrew in 1992.
Frequent visitors made the boat house an inadequate spot for a residence so he built for himself a home on the ridge above. It was not your typical pioneer house. The house was originally designed as a unique one story square bungalow with a hipped roof structure having each point facing North, South, East and West. He constructed it partly from salvaged ship timber. It called his home the “Barnacle.”
About a decade later when more room was needed, Munroe lifted the original structure adding a first floor below. Today the Barnacle still stands in its original location making it the oldest home in Dade County.
On a return trip from visiting family in New York in the fall of 1894, Munroe met his second wife Miss Jessie Wirth. They married that spring and later had 2 children; a daughter, Patty, and a son Wirth.
Ralph Munroe was an active leader in the Coconut Grove community. Because of his early influence from conservationist and his love for nature, he successfully fought against the developers proposals to create artificial islands off shore. He also came against engineers who proposed piping raw sewage into the Bay. He fought to keep Coconut Grove as he found it, spending his life protecting its unique subtropical character.
This Coconut Grove Pioneer helped establish the first library, post office, churches, schools and a look into South Florida’s history through his photography.
Ralph Munroe lived in Coconut Grove until his death on August 20, 1933 at the age of 82.
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