History at a Glance
Titusville, Florida, located on the east central coast of the state, now known as “The Space Coast,” has a unique history of human interaction with its rich environment, a pioneering spirit, and a sense of adventure that reaches back for 12,000 years. This booklet will present some of the most important sites in that storied history and introduce you to some of the memorable individuals and events that left their mark on Titusville’s character through the centuries.
The city’s motto, “Gateway to Nature and Space,” highlights the role of Titusville as a place blessed with varied natural surroundings of sea, river, wetlands, citrus groves, forest, and farmland—and as a community closely connected to America’s exploration of space from its earliest days to the present as it reached into the heavens from the launchpads and control rooms of nearby Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center.
The environmental backdrop to this history changed dramatically at the end of the Ice Age to resemble the landscape we can see today. Titusville itself is perched on a dune ridge that overlooks the Indian River Lagoon to the east. The lagoon provides a rich source of fish and other seafood and serves as a broad highway for waterborne transportation. Beyond it lie the barrier islands of Merritt Island and Cape Canaveral, which themselves were fertile farming and fishing grounds. To the west lie the wetlands of the St. Johns River watershed, a constantly changing landscape of lakes, hammocks, salt plains, and forests that offer a wealth of resources to those skillful and hardy enough to manage and exploit them efficiently.
Yet the environment represents only the constraints and opportunities that the inhabitants of the Indian River country have faced. That’s what makes the history of Titusville so intriguing. It has always been left to the men, women, and children who lived in every period to shape their own existence by seizing opportunities and adapting to those constraints.
The First Inhabitants
Archaeologists have uncovered a distinctive regional constellation of cultures in the area between the Indian and St. Johns Rivers. The people who lived here from the end of the Ice Age to the arrival of Europeans were skilled in exploiting the rich environment of wetlands, forest, fields, and sea. At the important Native American site of Windover, excavations of the pond uncovered unique underwater burials and well-preserved grave goods including wood, bone, and antler tools and even textiles. These finds offered a dramatic view of life in this area during the Middle Archaic Period, 8,000-7,000 years ago.
In the centuries that followed, distinctive regional cultures developed, known for their pottery and towering shell mounds and middens. They were known to the first Spanish explorers as the Ais, a native people whose territory extended from the area of modern-day Cocoa to northward to Titusville. Early European accounts reported that each of the many Ais settlements along the Indian River had its own leader who owed allegiance to the paramount chief of the Ais.
With the increasing traffic of Spanish treasure galleons along the east coast of Florida, the Ais became skilled salvors, recovering bullion and other trade goods from the European ships grounded by unpredictable currents or wrecked in storms. This made the Ais a powerful people, trading precious metal with other native groups far inland. Yet the independent existence of the Ais came to an end by the close of the 1600s, with European diseases and slave raids decimated the population.
In the 1700s other Native American groups migrated south to Florida from the Carolinas and Georgia. They eventually became known as the Seminoles, occupying the Lake Okeechobee region and the Everglades. They established their presence in the St Johns River watershed as well.
With the American settlement of the Indian River country in the mid-nineteenth century, we enter a period of vivid characters, great gambles, increasing commerce and the steady growth of population. Titusville became a center of business and transportation for the region—exporting lumber, a new “Indian River” variety of orange developed on Merritt Island by the early grower Douglas Dummett, as well fish and other seafood from the Indian River to the populous cities of America’s East Coast. It was a colorful, rough-and-tumble era of steamboats and railroads, of saloons and itinerant workers, of entrepreneurs and inventors, and of wealthy families whose fortunes were built on agriculture and industry.
The establishment and expansion of the city of Titusville is a story reminiscent of the Wild West, yet was located on the balmy east coast of Florida. From a few scattered settlements of self-sufficient pioneers, who arrived in the area as homesteaders in the years before the Civil War, Titusville grew to be a booming municipality that boasted a bustling commercial district, busy train station, its own local newspaper, and several churches and hotels. It took its name from an ambitious entrepreneur and soldier-of-fortune named Henry T. Titus, who established a wide range of enterprises there in the 1870s and built its first hotel.
Among the other civic leaders in this early period was James C. Pritchard, a Confederate veteran who established the first bank and built the city’s first electric generating plant. His elegant Queen Anne-style home on South Washington Avenue remains a local landmark. Yet boomtimes would eventually give way to a steep economic downturn, due to severe freezes that destroyed the citrus crop in 1894 and a great fire that swept through the city’s commercial district in 1895.
The Growth of a Modern City
Rising from the ashes, the history of Titusville in the twentieth century continues to be colorful and memorable but in completely different ways. The Florida Land Boom of the 1920s, with its wild real estate speculation, left its mark on the city in the arrival of wintertime tourists, the building of the Dixie Highway, and the Spanish Revival architecture that can still be seen in houses and businesses throughout town.
Horses and carriages were quickly replaced on the streets of Titusville by automobiles and delivery trucks. The lots in the commercial district that had been left unoccupied since the 1895 were gradually reconstructed—this time in brick and concrete to prevent a conflagration ever happening again. Elegant homes were constructed along the Indian River for the city’s prominent civic leaders and businessmen. The citrus industry grew to industrial proportions with the produce of the Indian River country shipped across the nation. Florida became known as a winter vacation spot for snow-weary northerners. Titusville’s hotels multiplied, and its suburbs expanded to the west with a golf club established in Whispering Hills.
The Depression years put a temporary halt to the prosperity of Titusville, though the area gained a new importance during World War II with the construction of watch stations to guard against the approach of German U-boats and the establishment of a flight training base at Ti-Co Airport south of town. And in the years following the end of the war, Titusville’s economy and population both grew significantly, driven by citrus cultivation, large scale commercial fishing, and new aeronautical and missile-related technology.
Titusville and the Exploration of Space
Titusville’s involvement with aeronautics, a connection that would eventually lead to space exploration, began during World War II with the establishment of the Banana River (later Patrick) Naval Air Station and a base for pilot training at Ti-Co Airport. Missile testing began on nearby Cape Canaveral in the early 1950s, leading to the heady days of the early US Space Program, at first with modified V-2s, Redstone, Atlas, Jupiter, and Titan missiles roaring into space.
NASA’s ambitious Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs required the skills of a huge workforce of scientists, engineers, and construction workers, many of whom flocked to the suburbs of Titusville, expanding the city’s population and taking part in community life. The spectacle of manned launches drew enormous crowds of onlookers to the city’s parks on the western banks of the Indian River.
With the renewal of regular launches by SpaceX and United Launch Alliance (ULA), with additional launches anticipated from Blue Origin, Titusville has become a magnet for space workers and eager crowds of launch watchers who once again flock to the western banks of the Indian River to marvel at the roar and fiery spectacles of missile liftoffs from Kennedy Space Center.