The seven surviving stilt homes – built on wooden and concrete pylons two miles offshore in what is now Biscayne National Park – once were remote getaways for politicians, judges and other Miami bigwigs to gamble and drink illegally during Prohibition.
“The Quarter Deck Club ran a racy operation out here – allegedly,” said Bill Tuttle, lawyer for the “Stiltsville Trust” and caretaker of the Ellenburg House, one of the rickety, historic structures that made it through the winds and tidal surge of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 when 12 others did not.
“Now,” Tuttle said, “about as racy as it gets out here is a Boy Scout cleanup.”
On Saturday, Tuttle drove one of about eight boats to Stiltsville for just such a clean up. Lanky, 17-year-old Drew Collins, who plans to become a biomedical engineer, ran the show for his Eagle Scout candidate leadership project.
“I remember taking Drew out to Stiltsville when he was a Cub Scout and came up to here on me,” Tuttle said, pointing to the middle of his chest. “He asked me to bait his line. Now, he’s grown up and is doing this ambitious project.”
Indeed, it was quite the undertaking for Collins – a high school senior who simultaneously is getting an associates degree at Miami Dade College.
He said the idea popped into his head about a year ago. He thought it would be good for raising awareness about Stiltsville and it would be good for the precious environment.
Tuttle helped him secure the necessary National Park Service permit. Collins rounded up about 60 volunteers from his school, his Boy Scout Troop 69, five dive shops and his family.
There were heavy-duty garbage bags to buy, and a zillion other logistics to hammer out, while staying within his $1,700 budget funded mainly by the Stiltsville Trust. Collins said he was worried that the fish tacos planned by Chef Brian would break the bank, but happily they did not.
With blue skies, calm seas and a nice breeze to cool the workforce, Collins put them to work, collecting litter on the shorelines of Matheson Hammock Park in Coral Gables and in the shallow waters under the rustic stilt homes owned by the federal government and used by charitable organizations.
“Remember, you are the treasure hunters,” he told them. “Look for that treasure.”
Divers and snorkelers armed with fish nets began collecting debris from the ocean floor. There was countless beer bottles, both empty and full, and evidence that the houses still attract partiers.
“I need a bag; I’ve go the motherlode down here,” one diver said to those on the dock.
The trash collection was eclectic: several pairs of sunglasses, fishing poles, a folding chair and an extension ladder with a live baby octopus clinging to it.
The divers also found a flip-flop, cellphone and even a stereo. Then there was the intricate tea cup, made of Jackson china from Falls Creek, Pa. There’s also a household refrigerator resting at the bottom, now home to a big green moray eel and likely to remain there as habitat for parrotfish, sergeant majors, gray snapper and predatory lionfish.
Those heavy-duty garbage bags filled up fast. Collins was expecting the project would fill at least a dumpster.
“When I heard what he wanted to do I told him it was ambitious,” said Brenda Zelman, his former Boy Scout leader. “But I told him: ‘You can do it.’”
Zelman said it was the biggest Eagle Scout candidate project she’s been involved in for the past five years. Others had included building picnic tables and planting gardens.
Collins began the day a bit frazzled, and accidentally dropped his own sunglasses into the water – needing a diver to retrieve them. But he got more confident as the day wore on.
“I think he bit off a little more than he could chew,” said his father, Mark. “It was very ambitious and I don’t think he understood what it would take. But he’s had a lot of help and he’s learning to delegate.”
Collins had seven metal signs made that read: “Keep it Clean Or Pay Some $Green$. Fines up to $5,000. No Littering. FL State Statute 403.413.”
“We’re putting one up at each house,” Collins said. “It’s the permanent part of the project.”