Ralph Middleton Munroe
Ralph Middleton Munroe was born and raised in Staten Island, N.Y. His grandfather, William Munroe, designed and manufactured the first lead pencil in the U.S. shortly after the war of 1812. As a youngster Munroe was influenced by conservationists Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, both of whom were family friends. After attending military school, Munroe studied drafting at Columbia University in New York.
As a young man, Ralph Munroe took an interest in boats. In 1877 he jumped at the chance to sail to Key West, Florida with a relative. En route the party sailed across Biscayne Bay, discovering the wilderness along the coast and the scattered human settlements along the Miami River. Munroe was favorably impressed by the mild climate, subtropical landscapes, and the friendly people he encountered in south Florida.
Back in New York, Munroe met Eva Hewitt of Staten Island. The couple was married in 1879 and had a baby daughter the following year. When Eva Munroe developed tuberculosis a year later, the couple traveled by steamer to south Florida to find a more suitable climate. Accompanying them was Eva's sister Adeline Hewitt, who was also suffering from tuberculosis, and her brother Mott Hewitt. The baby remained in New York with her grandmother.
Munroe set up camp for the family along the north bank of the Miami River. Despite his efforts, however, illness claimed both his wife and sister within a short time. But Munroe's grief did not end there. Upon returning to New York with Eva's family, Munroe also learned that his baby daughter had died as well.
Yearning to see his wife's grave, Munroe returned to South Florida in 1882 with his brother-in-law Mott Hewitt. The pair helped a friend in Coconut Grove build a hotel on the shore of Biscayne Bay. The Bay View Villa (later renamed the Peacock Inn) opened the following winter. For several years thereafter, Munroe traveled between New York and south Florida.
In 1886, Ralph Munroe decided to make Coconut Grove his permanent winter home. He bought 40 acres of bayfront land for $400 and one of his sailboats, valued at an additional $400. In 1887, Munroe built a boathouse, using its upper floor as his residence until the main house was completed in 1891. The house was a one-story bungalow that Munroe named the "Barnacle. It was constructed partly from salvaged ship timber. Some ten years later, when more space was needed at the Barnacle, the original structure was lifted and a new first floor inserted below. The Barnacle still stands in Coconut Grove today -- the oldest home that has remained in its original location in Dade County.
In 1887, a group of residents formed the Biscayne Bay Yacht Club and elected Ralph Munroe as Commodore, a title he held for 22 years. Boats were the primary mode of transportation in Coconut Grove at that time, and the Yacht Club was a place of prominence in community life. Munroe made his living by designing yachts for many of South Florida's pioneers. He also worked as a wrecker, salvaging boats that had run aground in Biscayne Bay.
In the fall of 1894 Munroe met Miss Jessie Wirth while on a cruise with friends. They were married that spring. They had two children, a daughter, Patty, and a son, Wirth. The family took frequent cruises on Biscayne Bay and the children learned to sail at a very early age.
Ralph Munroe remained an active leader of the Coconut Grove community, successfully fighting developers who proposed to build artificial islands offshore and engineers who proposed piping raw sewage into the Bay. He established a library, post office, churches, and schools. His photographs depict the people and places of Coconut Grove, maritime places (Miami River, Florida Keys, Bahamas, lighthouses, etc.) and maritime activities around Biscayne Bay (boat-building, sailboats, wrecking, Biscayne Bay Yacht Club, etc.). Munroe's book, The Commodore's Story: The Early Days on Biscayne Bay, co-written by Vincent Gilpin, offers a rare glimpse of south Florida at the turn of the century.
Biography prepared by Gail Clement, Florida International University
Photograph of Ralph Middleton Munroe ca.
Photo courtesy of History Miami (formerly Historical Museum of Southern Florida)