Give Paul S. George three hours and he'll give you Biscayne Bay in all its sparkling beauty and fascinating history. As the sun sets this Sunday, George, a nationally recognized local historian, will conduct a boat tour from Bayside to Key Biscayne and back. He'll spin the rich lore of the bay against the scenic backdrop of its modern-day causeways and illuminated skyline. The twilight tour for nearly 100 intrepid adventurers, one of 24 that George offers through the Historical Museum of Southern Florida every year, has traditionally been among the most popular in the series.
"This tour really speaks to the bulk of the history of Miami, and that's because it's about the water," says George, who's also a history professor at Miami-Dade Community College's Wolfson campus. "So much of Miami's history is the bay and the river and the ocean."
After shoving off from Bayside, the excursion skims past the mouth of the Miami River, Virginia Key, and Vizcaya before turning toward one of its highlights: Stiltsville, a cluster of seven houses perched atop pilings just off the southern tip of Key Biscayne. Legend has it the founder of this quaint village was a colorful character named Crawfish Eddie, who turned a barge that had run aground into a bait shack in the Thirties. In the early days, some of Stiltsville's houses served as clubs and other assorted lairs of sin. Later the community became a peaceful weekend and summer getaway.
Stiltsville reached its peak in the Seventies, when it boasted more than twenty houses, but the area has since been deteriorating. In 1992 it took a hard hit from Hurricane Andrew, which toppled half the structures. Today the federal government is threatening to demolish what remains of Stiltsville because the feds want Biscayne National Park, on which the elevated community borders, to be free of private property. George points out that his tour could offer a final glimpse of the South Florida landmark. If the government has its way, he says, residents would suffer "a big cultural loss. Since we're so transient, there's very little in this community that becomes part of the cultural memory. But [Stiltsville] is."
From the endangered neighborhood the tour heads north along Key Biscayne, which itself has quite a history. At different times it has been home to Tequesta Indians, Spanish colonizers, and Confederate soldiers. Perhaps its most famous modern tenant is the Cape Florida Lighthouse. (Built in 1825, it is among the oldest structures in South Florida.) Another important chapter in Key Biscayne's past is the multitude of schemes, some more successful than others, that have been carried out to develop it over the years.
After Key Biscayne it's on to the Port of Miami and its procession of ocean liners. Then back to Bayside. By that time night will have fallen. The stars will be twinkling. And the bay won't look quite the same way to George's audience as it did before they heard the great stories behind it.