PUNTA GORDA, Fla. — Pilings and planks are about all that’s left of Jim Kelly’s “stilt house,” tucked near one of the mangrove islands that dot the backcountry fishing hole known as Bull Bay.
Once a dormitory for commercial fishermen, then a rustic getaway for families and anglers, Kelly’s stilt house and others like it virtually disappeared in the winds of Hurricane Charley, which tore through the area in August.
Perched over the water, the houses have weathered decades of storms and survived efforts by environmental regulators to have them removed.
It looks like the historic buildings will bounce back from Hurricane Charley, too. A state law passed in 1999 allows many of the owners to rebuild, no matter how severe the damage.
“They’re part of the tradition and the history of Charlotte County,” said Kelly, a 76-year-old resident of Cleveland, near Punta Gorda. “These are just like Rembrandt paintings. There ain’t going to be no more.”
Decades ago, when 7 mph on the water was considered fast and snook could still be sold at the market, stilt houses served an important role.
“The biggest industry in Punta Gorda for 50 years was the fishing industry,” said Robert “Bucky” McQueen, a developer who co-owns a historic stilt house in Bull Bay and another in Pine Island Sound.
There are two types of stilt houses: fish camps such as McQueen’s, which boarded fishermen overnight; and icing stations tended by fish company employees.
Punta Gorda Fish Co. and other businesses built fish camps to keep net fishermen near their quarry. Instead of going back to Punta Gorda after a day of hauling nets, they stayed in the fish camps and saved themselves a long round trip. More than 20 miles separate Punta Gorda from Bull Bay and Pine Island Sound — a round trip of six hours or more.
Sometimes the fishermen stayed in the stilt houses for weeks.
The ice houses were supply stations and unloading points for the fishing boats. The fish made it to the fish company docks via 60-foot-plus “run boats,” which stopped by three times a week. Aside from taking the fish, the run boats carried 300-pound “cakes” of ice to the stations and brought the fishermen supplies, gasoline and groceries, said Joe Goulding, who co-owns a Bull Bay fish camp with McQueen.
The ice stations were permanent structures, but the fish camps could be moved to where the fishing was good.
As boats became faster, the need for run boats and fish camps faded. The fish companies sold some of their stilt buildings in the 1950s.
For decades until Charley, the buildings have provided refuges where owners could entertain friends and family, hold informal fishing tournaments, and splash in the phosphorescent green glow of the water at night. Credit Chicago Tribune
This Chapter Nautical History
The Section History of Fish Huts
Next Page Fish Huts Added to the National Register of Historic Places
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