The Offshore Mischief Dens of Miami's '60s Sinners

Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders
Nov. 7 2013 9:46 AM

Beer, Bait, and Bikinis: The Colorful History of Miami's Off-Shore Stiltsville

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In 1933, a Miami man famous for his chowder -- "Crawfish" Eddie, they called him -- constructed a wooden shack on stilts a mile offshore. Built during the last gasp of prohibition, the shack soon attracted drinkers and gamblers, who chased their beers and poker hands with a bowl of homemade chowder.

Crawfish Eddie's was the first shack in Stiltsville, a hodgepodge collection of offshore houses that became a playground for Miami's coolest sinners. After a few of Eddie's friends had built neighboring shacks, the Quarterdeck Club, an invite-only gentleman's establishment, appeared in 1941.

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Fishing buddies would boat between buildings to drink, dine, and cast their lines into the shallow waters from the Quarterdeck's front dock. A LIFE magazine article from 1941 noted that club members fished with a flexible approach: "When fish spurn bait," it read, "a versatile sportsman can often kill them by well-aimed gunfire." 

The early 1960s was boom time for Stiltsville. Twenty-seven shacks crowded the sand flats, and the new Bikini Club offered free drinks for women in two-pieces and a secluded sun deck for naked lounging.

The boom, however, was swiftly followed by busts both legal and meteorological. The vice squad raided the Bikini Club and shuttered it for operating without a liquor license and possessing 40 unauthorized, undersized, out-of-season crawfish. Then came Hurricane Betsy in 1965, which swept away all but half-a-dozen shacks. 

Many were rebuilt, but by this time the state's patience for Stiltsville shenanigans was wearing thin. Florida issued formal leases to the shack owners with an expiry date of 1999, declaring that any remaining on that date would need to be removed. When the crucial year finally arrived -- after Hurricane Andrew had decimated all but seven of the stilt houses -- community support helped Stiltsville owners to negotiate a deal with the government. The shacks were saved.

The houses now lie within the boundaries of Biscayne National Park and are co-managed by the National Parks Service and the Stiltsville Trust. If you're looking for a unique place to host a party, you can rent one of the properties for a night.

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