Stiltsville, A Quirky Part of Florida’s History

Stiltsville is a group of wood stilt houses located on the edge of Biscayne Bay. They sit on wood or reinforced concrete pilings, generally ten feet above the shallow water which varies from one to three feet deep at low tide.

Crawfish” Eddie Walker built a shack on stilts above the water in 1933, toward the end of prohibition, allegedly for gambling, which was legal at one mile offshore. He sold bait and beer from his shack and was known for his crawfish chowder (made from crawfish that he caught under the shack). Shipwrecking and channel dredging brought many people to the area and more shacks were constructed, some by boating and fishing clubs.

Social clubs were built at Stiltsville in the 1930’s and 1940’s. When The Quarterdeck Club opened, membership cost $150.00, and was by invitation only. The club became one of the most popular spots in Miami, and it’s popularity grew after an article appeared in Life magazine, describing it as: “An extraordinary American community dedicated solely to sunlight, salt water and the well-being of the human spirit”. The club was described as “a $100,000 play-palace equipped with bar, lounge, bridge deck, dining room and dock slips for yachts.”

In the 1940s and 1950s, it was the place where lawyers, bankers, politicians, and Miami’s wealthy came to drink, relax and kick back. At its peak in 1960, there were 27 buildings. A local magazine wrote: “Off Key Biscayne is a renegade village on stilts where weekend residents live by their own laws.” In September of 1965, Hurricane Betsy destroyed most of Stiltsville.

In 1985, the bottom land on which the stilt structures sit was deeded by the State of Florida to the Federal Government as part of Biscayne National Park. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew left only seven buildings standing, none of which existed during the area’s heyday.

A non-profit organization called the Stiltsville Trust was established in 2003 and included the seven remaining leaseholders, called caretakers, and eight members of the community. In addition to raising funds, their goal was to preserve and rehabilitate the structures. Possible proposed uses included community meeting space, a visitor center and research facilities.

The park service has added hurricane strapping to protect the structures from wind damage in major storms. Caretakers still perform basic maintenance on their former weekend retreats, but the Stiltsville buildings are owned by the National Park Service and have been secured and posted with no trespassing signs. You can only access the buildings with the permission of the park’s superintendent.

Our anchorage is right near Stiltsville. We passed by it on our way south in 2008, and I thought the buildings and the whole story were really interesting. Since it was so close now, we thought it would fun to take the Aluminum Princess over for another look-see.

Even thought they’ve seen better days, the houses are still really cool

And they are just a stone’s throw from the Miami skyline

Most of the houses are now surrounded by coral and waters too shallow for even the Aluminum Princess. It was neat to get as close as we did. After doing a several loops around the more accessible houses, we motored back to Sea Life in time for Scott to get some great sunset photos!

Check out more pictures of the cool Stiltsville houses, and of the beautiful sunset that evening.

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”

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