Stiltsville: Hiding in Plain Sight

Millions of travelers visit Miami to take in its world-class beaches, nightlife, restaurants and shopping, but with all that glamour going on few get a chance to explore the city’s hidden and off the beaten path sights. The large majority of Miami visitors don’t experience the most authentic and fascinating aspects of South Florida’s cultural and historical locations because they are not featured in mainstream guidebooks or travel sites.

Known only to locals and those visitors tenacious enough to seek it out, Stiltsville is one of the most unusual historical locations in South Florida and can be seen glimmering in the distance from the shores of one of Miami’s most popular beaches. Hovering above the clear shallow waters of Miami’s Biscayne Bay, this unique collection of colorful shack-like houses sit just over 1 mile offshore of the southern tip of Key Biscayne. Accessible only by private vessel or organized boat tour, very few travelers have ever heard about or seen Stiltsville although it is a Miami landmark and a vibrant part of the area’s history.

Legendary characters started building the houses on shallow grass flats in the late 1920’s with the first known structure constructed in 1928 by the venerable Crawfish Eddie who sold beer and crawfish stew from his shack. During prohibition Stiltsville was a haven for “rumrunners” and many shacks featured speakeasies where prominent locals rubbed elbows with Governor’s and celebrities of the era. It is rumored that mobster Al Capone had a gambling establishment in one of the small wooden shacks.

By the 1940’s and 50’s privately owned clubs and establishments including The Calvert Club, Quarterdeck Club and Bikini Club became popular hangouts and were known for their “anything goes” atmosphere.

At the peak of its popularity, Stiltsville had 27 homes built over the shallow water flats along Biscayne Channel with the last house built in the late 1960’s. Over the years most of the earlier structures were destroyed by hurricanes or fire, and with only seven houses remaining today, this one-of-a-kind landmark is highly cherished by those fortunate enough to experience it.

In 1968 the National Park Service established Biscayne National Park and incorporated Stiltsville into the northern most section of the park. The original owners of the homes now act as caretakers of the structures under the non-profit Stiltsville Trust.

Other than knowing a local with a boat visitors have a few ways to experience this colorful relic from Miami’s past. Currently there are only two outlets permitted by the National Park Service to take paying customers for visits to Stiltsville. Ocean Force Adventures has daily small group boat tours departing out of South Beach and History Miami conducts larger group tours two times a year with  Dr. Paul George.

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