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Battle Cry From Florida: Preserve Our Pilings

Stilted community of the sea argues its right to exist within confines of a national park.

By Isabelle de Pommereau / March 18, 1998



STILTSVILLE, FLA.

That would Crawfish Eddie say today about Stiltsville?

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He'd probably scratch his head, squint his eyes, and stir his chowder. After all, he started this colony built on stilts a mile from the Miami coast some 60 years ago.

From his entrepreneurial idea of selling food to boaters sailing these pristine shallows emerged a community of 20 houses. Battered by hurricanes over the years, only seven remain, and their timbers are numbered.

That's because the structures sit within the boundaries of the recently formed Biscayne National Park, and park officials don't like it. So the homes will be razed next year, when their leases expire.

But in an 11th- hour crusade, leaders of Save Our Stiltsville are fighting for their homes, which they call a slice of Miami history and a way of life.

"Stiltsville speaks of an unusual part of our culture," says local historian Paul George. While many in Florida live to fish, boat and snorkel, Mr. George says, "these folks are going a step further: They've built on water, and found it to be the ultimate tranquilizer."

Push off from a dock heading to sea and you'll see the homes on piers sunk into the sand. Six decades after Crawfish Eddie (aka Eddie Walker) settled here, the city on stilts remains a popular spot for adventurers who come to fish, snorkel, and keep decades of tradition alive. It's a salt-of-the-sea place, accessible only by boat and blessed with unspoiled views of Miami.

As a child, Miami attorney Thomas Caldwell helped build one of the first homes in Stiltsville. He would spend hours shark-fishing and sleep on an open porch in a warm, salty breeze. "It was a unique way of growing up," says Mr. Caldwell.

There's the house with giant doors that open up and cling to the ceiling, letting in the breezes. "An escape from the hustle and bustle," says airline pilot Richard Mace, its owner.

And there's the Miami Springs Powerboat Club, still standing after years of pounding from storms. Its 75 members keep busy with fishing tournaments, and work parties. "I raised two families here," says William Engelhard, resting in the cabin. "There are so many memories here."

Ultimately, the decision on Stiltsville rests with Richard Frost, superintendent of Biscayne National Park. The owners would need to convince him of the homes' historic significance. "There is nothing ... that makes it belong in a National Park," Mr. Frost says.

With its 180,000 acres of water, the park is the largest marine park in the nation. The waters here are particularly precious. They're covered by a bed of seagrass that provides a habitat for fish. Frost worries about people potentially using "unacceptable" septic systems. Mostly, he says, "a national park is supposed to protect a natural area so people can enjoy it the way nature created it, unaltered. The intent isn't to give a handful of people exclusive use of the park."

To preserve this community, Save Our Stiltsville leaders are frantically collecting data about their community, but they may find proving its significance difficult.

The community has a shady past, according to "Stiltsville: Miami's Historic Maritime Community" written by George.

He says the city was born with squatters building on the shallows. Many Floridians viewed it as an eyesore, with residents living tax-free.

The Biscayne Bikini Club, opened on a sunken yacht in 1962, didn't help its reputation. It was one of several clubs where parties were plentiful - and one whose era ended when state agents closed it for not having a liquor license.

By the mid 1960s, Stiltsville owners started paying leases to the state, a modest sum that grew to $1,800. But now those leases are under the federal government, and they won't be renewed.

"Let them stay until nature decides they should go," says George. "With a little luck, they can go on standing."