Tuesday, May 22, 2018
Travel

Guided tours impart the storied history of Stiltsville in Biscayne Bay

MIAMI

Perched above the shallow turquoise waters of Biscayne Bay are shacks on stilts that have hosted some of Florida's wildest parties, from the days when alcohol and gambling were outlawed to a bachelor party for a member of the Kennedy clan.

Seven homes still stand in Stiltsville, as the community is called, located about a mile out in the Biscayne channel in Biscayne National Park, just a short boat ride or kayak trip from the Key Biscayne coastline.

"When are you out there and there's nobody there, it's one of the most desolate settings imaginable," said Paul George, a history professor at Miami-Dade College. "And yet in other ways it's one of the most striking."

The first dozen homes were built close to the surface of the water in the late 1920s, but they were vulnerable to storm surges and hurricane damage. By the 1930s and '40s, the homes were built higher, on wooden stilts held up by steel-reinforced concrete pilings driven through the sand below. The houses had boat docks, wraparound verandas and plenty of windows to pick up the breeze. Generators fueled electricity, cisterns collected rainwater and sewage was sent to a disposal facility.

More than two dozen homes existed during Stiltsville's heyday in the 1960s. Seven are still standing; they are now part of Biscayne National Park and are no longer privately owned.

HistoryMiami, a local cultural institution and museum, runs occasional three-hour boat tours led by George to see Stiltsville, though the boats do not dock at the homes. Kayakers also can tie up at the base of a home and at least stand on the deck for stunning sunset views. The homes, now used for tours and other events, are locked when no one is there.

George says the homes were a last bastion for what he calls "old Miami's good ol' boy network," a place where acquaintances could fish, drink, tell stories, carouse and get away from city life. "When you get out there, you've left your cares behind," George said.

Stiltsville even had its own clubs, hosting members-only parties known for bikini-clad women and sometimes nude sunbathers. During Prohibition, there was illegal gambling and alcohol. A local known as Crawfish Charlie was an almost mythological figure in the community, schmoozing boaters and selling them bait and chowder.

In 1992, one of the homes collapsed as more than 100 visitors partied during a rainstorm. Stiltsville was also known as the site of a party for a bachelor Ted Kennedy, with a live band.

But many of the homes were damaged or destroyed in hurricanes and fires, and they were not infrequent targets of police raids. Beginning in the 1950s, the community also faced opposition from residents of nearby Key Biscayne, who called the shacks eyesores and its residents squatters, George said.

"People over here started complaining about the wild happenings over there," George said as he pointed at Stiltsville from Key Biscayne, which is about 10 miles from Miami.

Stiltsville homeowners tried to portray the community as family friendly.

"We're a family-type colony, not a scruffy bunch of squatters," Frank Knuck, a local judge, was quoted as saying in several publications, including a report by the Stiltsville Trust, a nonprofit created to preserve the remaining Stiltsville structures.

But the complaints pushed the state to eventually order Stiltsvillians (as the residents called themselves) to abandon the homes when their property leases expired in 1999.

George, an author and local celebrity, gives several tours of South Florida. The boat does not make any stops, but George supplies fact-packed lessons about the Miami River's building boom, the Key Biscayne bridge and the city's ties to politicians like Kennedy, who, George said, "loved the sea."

The tour also offers stunning views of Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park and the Cape Florida Lighthouse before it heads off to the Biscayne Channel and the heart of Stiltsville.

Karen Clark of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., said she had tried to make it on other tours, but the timing wasn't right until this trip. "This was something I really wanted to do," said Clark.

As a crowd gathered near the front of the boat to take a last picture of the homes, George said, "I just wish there were 27 for me to show you."

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