Situated on the shore of Biscayne
Bay, The Barnacle was the late 19th century home of Ralph Middleton Munroe, one
of Coconut Grove’s most interesting and influential pioneers. The Florida Park
Service acquired the remaining five acres of Munroe’s original 40-acre home
site from his descendants in 1973.
Ralph Munroe first visited South Florida in 1877 while on
vacation from New York. His next visit to the area was not as pleasant. In
1881, doctors told Munroe that his wife, Eva, had contracted tuberculosis and
indicated a radical change of climate was the best and only hope. Munroe immediately remembered the beautiful
Biscayne Bay and at once prepared to take her there. Despite his efforts,
illness took its toll. Eva passed away at their camp on the Miami River. Munroe
was then faced with the news of their infant daughter’s death upon his arrival
back in New York.
Munroe returned to South Florida in 1882 to visit his wife’s
grave and encouraged early Coconut Grove settlers, Charles and Isabella
Peacock, to establish a small hotel to support seasonal visitors to the area. First known as the Bay View Villa, the hotel
became the Peacock Inn and went on to have a long and profitable history.
Ralph Munroe purchased 40 acres of bayfront land in 1886 for
$400 along with one of his sailboats, KINGFISH, valued at an additional $400.
His two-story boathouse, built in 1887, provided a workshop downstairs and
living space above. Frequent visitors
made the boathouse impractical as a residence, so Munroe designed a bungalow for
himself on the ridge above and began living there in 1891. The house, a
one-story structure, was raised off the ground on wood pilings and Munroe came
to call his home “The Barnacle,” presumably because it resembled one. It
remained a bungalow until more space was needed in 1908. At that time the whole
structure, as it stood, was lifted and a new first-floor inserted below. The
Barnacle survived the disastrous 1926 hurricane and Hurricane Andrew in 1992
with only minimal damage.
On a return trip from visiting family in New York, Ralph met
lovely, young Miss Jessie Wirth and they married in 1895. A daughter Patty was
born in 1900, and a son Wirth in 1902. To support his family, Munroe worked as
a salvager/wrecker but his true passion was yacht design. A proponent
of shallow-draft, centerboard yachts, Munroe engaged in the friendly, sometimes
heated debate about the superiority and seaworthiness of his design versus the
popular fixed-keel sailboat designs of his contemporary Nathaniel Herreshoff of
Bristol, Rhode Island (and others). Over
the years, Munroe and Herreshoff shared mutual respect and friendship,
culminating in Herreshoff wintering with his wife in a cottage that Munroe
built for him next to the Barnacle boathouse.
Boats were the major form of transportation in the early
days and yachting was becoming a popular sport. Many South Floridians
commissioned Munroe to design their yachts, and, in his lifetime, he drew plans
for 56 different boats. In 1887, a group of residents formed the Biscayne Bay
Yacht Club, electing Munroe as Commodore, the title he held for 22 years. A
replica of Munroe’s 28-foot modified sharpie, EGRET, is now moored offshore. A man with diverse interests, he was also a
photographer, author, and environmental activist. Ralph lived in Coconut Grove
until his death at the age of 82.
The road into this historic site from the busy Main Highway
passes through a forest of tropical hardwood hammock. In the 1920’s it was an
example of the original landscape within the limits of Miami. Today, it is one
of the last remnants of the once vast “Miami Hammock.” Commodore Munroe preserved the original
hammock between the road and The Barnacle, cutting out only a winding buggy
trail barely wide enough for one vehicle. As a result, the forest contains many
old trees, and left in its natural state, The Barnacle appears much as it did
in Munroe’s day.
As a seaman, naturalist, and photographer, Commodore Munroe
was a man who cherished the natural world around him. It is a fitting legacy
that we too can share at The Barnacle Historic State Park. Enjoy sitting in the
rocking chairs on the spacious porch used as a gathering place or on a bench
under a tree for solitude. Better yet, become a volunteer and/or join The
Barnacle Society to help preserve this historic treasure.More Photos