HistoryMiami’s Stiltsville Tour is an only-in-Miami experience

If you take a break from the bike trail at Bill Baggs State Park at the southern tip of Key Biscayne and look southwest, you can see Stiltsville dotting the horizon. Stiltsville is a “neighborhood” of seven houses that emerge from shallows of Biscayne Bay on concrete and wood pilings with a history that goes back all the way to the early 1930s and, like many of Miami’s other architecturally unique structures, has been subject to the whims of both nature and man. 

Stiltsville is for Miami locals what the Statue of Liberty is for New Yorkers: You know it’s there, but you’ve probably never actually been, (unless you have a boat). In the case of Stiltsville, however, the prominently placed “No trespassing” signs on the structures are foreboding enough to keep you away.

The best way to experience this only-in-Miami oddity (unless you have a friend with a boat who is also a history buff) is to book passage on HistoryMiami’s Stiltsville Cruise tour, with host Dr. Paul George, local historian and professor of Social Science at Miami-Dade College and general knower of all things Miami.

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Among the facts about Miami that he fires off during the two-hour tour: Key Biscayne used to be a stop on the Underground Railroad where abolitionists would take fleeing slaves to the Bahamas; FDR was almost assassinated at a rally in Bayfront Park and that the Rickenbacker Causeway is named after Eddie Rickenbacker, the famed President of Eastern Air Lines who survived a plane crash and was adrift at sea for 24 days during WWII (two separate incidents). Oh, and Richard Nixon was down in South Florida a lot in what was referred to as the “Winter White House,” a bay front house on Key Biscayne where it is possible that some of the masterminding behind the Watergate break-in happened.  

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The first Stiltsville house was built in 1933 by a fisherman called Crawfish Eddie to sell chum. Many speculated that he opened it to sell liquor during Prohibition, which ended the same year, but that is likely not the case, though Dr. George admits that it would have been a great spot for it. After Crawfish Eddie set up shop, others followed. 

Local bigwigs got in on the fun and started to create their own invitation-only private clubs at Stiltsville, including Commodore Edward Turner, who built the Quarterdeck Club in 1940 and charged a membership fee. 

 

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At its height in 1960, there were 27 houses in Stiltsville. Soon the infamous Bikini Club, which was a run-aground ship, joined the neighborhood. Girls in bikinis could drink for free and the tales of wild parties and shenanigans were the stuff of legend, though they likely pale in comparison to a Columbus Day regatta party. 

 

Swinging Stiltsville, pictured here in 1970, remains a popular stop for boaters on Biscayne Bay. Photo: John Pineda
Swinging Stiltsville, pictured here in 1970, remains a popular stop for boaters on Biscayne Bay. Photo: John Pineda

 

Stiltsville was destroyed by Hurricane Betsy in 1965, by early 1992 there were only 14 structures in the area. Only seven survived Hurricane Andrew. No permits were ever granted for new construction, so these seven are it. 

 

Photo by Rudy Mercado
Photo by Rudy Mercado

 

The owners of the Stiltsville homes are now called “caretakers” and they are the only ones allowed to access the properties, and some of them do visit their houses. They are not allowed to add on to the houses, but they can improve and fix them. According to Dr. George, the first thing the caretaker would need to do if they wanted to spend the weekend in the house is clean the salt. 

 

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For someone else to use the property, it would mean going through the Biscayne National Park service, because the stretch of water was added to that park and is under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service.  

The tour, which is always a sold-out affair, takes off from Bayside on one of the Island Queen boats. Tours take place monthly and can be purchased at HistoryMiami’s website

 

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