The Shacks of Stiltsville, Miami
It’s easy to understand the allure. It’s an isolated spot, about a mile off shore. The only way out is by boat and every minute further from Miami’s shores, the salt-kissed sea breeze picks up, the heat eases, and you feel yourself slowly transported back in time. The deep water gradually lightens to a blue-green, clear enough to see the clumps of sea grass waving beneath the surface. Your worries melt away as you watch the stingrays glide across the sandy bottom of the bay.
It’s hard to imagine this spot of paradise as a hotbed of rum-running, debauchery, and sin, but these Crayola-colored shacks hovering over Biscayne Bay are portals to Miami’s colorful, vice-laden, Old Florida past.
Stiltsville’s Colorful History
Local legend says shacks first appeared in the area during the rum-running, booze-smuggling days of Prohibition, but the title of “first founder and shack owner” of Stiltsville goes to “Crawfish Eddy Walker.” Crawfish Eddy’s shack became a gathering place for fisherman, pleasure-boaters and anyone else who wanted to buy bait, sample some of Eddy’s famous Chilau (crawfish chowder) and enjoy a cold beer. This idea of an over-water hideaway, conveniently located outside of local law enforcement, caught on. Other enterprising souls embraced the idea and built their own shacks, creating a little community of shacks in Biscayne Bay.
Miami Rod and Reel Club outing, 1938, via MRRC
The Calvert Club was the first official social club in “Stiltsville”, followed by Commodore Edward Turner’s Quarterdeck Club in the 1940s. The Club’s membership fee (invite only, sorry) bought bar, lounge, dining a docking privileges for its jet-set clientele. The Club and Stiltsville became a Miami tourist attraction and hot spot for celebrities and anyone wishing to see and be seen.
Dinner at the Quarterdeck via Life Magazine, 1941
Party on the Commodore’s Houseboat, Shangri La
Fishing from the Club docks via Life Magazine 1941
Everyone was having fun until Crawfish Eddy’s shack was blown away in Hurricane King in 1950 and the Quarterdeck Club was heavily damaged. More shacks sprung up and a new crowd of bankers, lawyers, doctors and politicians came to join the fun, including Ted Kennedy, who had his bachelor party in Stiltsville. Rumors of wild parties, illegal gambling and a hush-hush black market booze operation floated back across the water to Miami’s vice squad who decided that Stiltsville was not outside the long arm of the law.
In 1954, Miami Vice raided a party thrown by the Miami Junior Chamber of Commerce and found strippers, gambling and lewd literature. Subsequent raids on parties and gatherings throughout the community solidified its “anything goes in Stiltsville” reputation.
Despite occasional annoyance of Miami vice and the law, the number of shacks continued to grow. A group of 12 friends purchased a sunken barge for $1, refloated it, towed to Stiltsville and grounded it. The Miami Springs Power Boat Club was established and the number of “houses” reached 27.
The Beginning of the End for Stiltsville?
The 1960s marked a turning point for Stiltsville. Hurricane Donna tore through in 1960 and took 20 houses with her. A jealous wife burned the Quarterdeck club to the waterline. Harry Churchville established the Bikini Club, complete with nude sunbathing, free drinks for any ladies showing up in skimpy bathing suits and rented “staterooms” for overnight guests (ahem). Vice shut down Harry’s Club after a raid for not having a liquor license and possession of 40 undersized crawfish.
Hurricane Betsy did her best in 1965 to finish what the vice squad started. When the wind died down, there were only 17 houses left, many damaged beyond repair. New building codes dictated no new structures could be built, all remaining structures raised to 10 feet above the water line and any structure damaged more than 50% leveled.
Tolerance for wild parties and illicit activities waned and Stiltsville tried to adopt a more respectable, family vibe. The sea community became a refuge and respite for a select few Miami families who enjoyed the peace and solitude of their middle-of-the-water escape. Anyone who got an invitation to a Stiltsville barbecue for drinks and fishing from the decks was one of a privileged few.
Stiltsville house, 1975 via Miami History Archives
By the 1980s, Miami’s Key Biscayne community started to complain about the “renegade squatters” impacting their view and home values. They demanded the shacks removal, setting off a decade of bickering and legal wrangling.
Hurricane Andrew hurried the process by tearing apart or sinking all but 7 Stiltsville homes in 1992. The fate of Stiltsville, now within the boundaries of Biscayne National Park, is uncertain.
For the lucky few and somewhat well-heeled, you can create your own Stiltsville experience (minus the booze and other shenanigans) by renting a property for a day, week or an event.
Have you been to Stiltsville? Even more interesting…have you been to a Stiltsville party? We’d love to hear the details. Pop right down to the comment section and tell us *everything*!
Things to Know
Contact the Stiltsville Trust for information about renting a property.
If you are interested in more information about Stiltsville or its preservation, you can find more information here.
HistoryMiami offers boat cruises out and around Key Biscayne and Stiltsville. The tours are hosted by Dr. Paul George, a local historian. Book here or here.
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