As I traveled south though Charlotte Harbor this summer, a mirage emerged on the watery horizon. Heat waves danced across grass flats toward the featureless mangrove shoreline. In the distant shallows, what looked like rooflines on the water shimmered into focus and then disappeared.
Near the southern reaches of Cayo Costa I veered east into Captiva Pass. Beyond the bow, the mirage appeared again, then sharpened into steady form. Little houses on stilts rose before me, strung along an oyster escarpment, casting shadows on the tidal waters flowing between the pilings that held them aloft.
These stilt homes are not only real, they are official historic places. In the early 1900s, pioneering fishermen built them over the water and often docked their boats there. Some still remain near the Anclote River and in Biscayne Bay, as well as in Charlotte Harbor. Today they retain much of their original character, although fiberglass skiffs with modern outboards have replaced old wooden boats.
They are occupied by fortunate families or friends who have been grandfathered in to 99-year leases from the state.
Most of the dwellings in Charlotte Harbor took a beating from Hurricane Charley. In some places only pilings remain. Others, such as Mannie’s, owned by Phil Gaylor and Skip Camp from Fort Myers, are in the process of being rebuilt from oyster beds up.
The state granted the Punta Gorda Fish Company the underwater lease for his property in 1899, says Gaylor; it was eventually named after an employee who was allowed to use it after his retirement. Rebuilding it has been a lengthy process, requiring state and local permits and adherence both to historic design standards and today’s requirements of withstanding 130-mph winds.
But it’s been worth it, Gaylor says. These homes remind him of the fishermen who came before us. And he and his friends treasure the front-row seat on nature, watching mullet endlessly circle the house, dolphins race after schools of fish or "big sharks amble by." Some of the happiest moments of his life, he says, have been "walking on the sandbar just before dark and falling asleep while listening to the gentle waves," or sitting out alone on the dock, wondering "where all the stars come from, because you never see them in town."