Ed Leedskalnin and the Coral Castle

Coral Castle

Driving down US1 with your family in the 1940s, you spot an interesting sight just outside Homestead, Florida – some sort of structure built entirely out of Florida’s coral slate.  Is it a Florida Stonehenge, a fortress, a home?  You pull off the road and park.  Following the meandering path to the “gate,” you see a sign reading, “Donations Here.” Reaching the gate, another sign says, “Ring Bell.”  Following instructions, you are soon greeted by a five foot tall, one hundred pound man in his 60s.  The man introduces himself as “Ed” and leads you on a tour of his creation – welcome to Ed Leedskalnin and his Rock Gate Park.

Born in Latvia in 1887, Ed Leehskalnin took up residence near Florida City around 1920.  Ed, a trained stone mason, began experimenting with carving the Florida coral around his property.  He built “furniture,” including a rocking chair, and various sculptures.  Ed’s work attracted the curious and he regaled them with stories his work memorialized his “Sweet Sixteen,” the love of his life who jilted him the night before their wedding.

Around 1936, Ed bought ten acres near Homestead, Florida and started the process of relocating his sculptures.  Stories differ as to what prompted the move.  According to the “official” story in the Coral Castle (the present owner’s name for Ed’s creation) brochure, work started on a housing development near Ed’s property in Florida City.  Seeking privacy, he moved to the area near Homestead.  However, Orval Irwin, one of Ed’s friends, claims in his book Mr. Can’t Is Dead! The Story of the Coral Castle that Ed wanted people to see his work, but found his property in Florida City too isolated, so he found property closer to civilization.  Since the Coral Castle sits right next to US1, the main thoroughfare from Miami to Key West during Ed’s day, Mr. Irwin’s story seems more accurate.

Ed continued work on the Coral Castle until 1940.  Using only simple methods such as levers and block and tackle, working alone, Ed built everything at the Coral Castle.  Ed was a gifted stone mason with the ability to seemingly pinpoint the center of gravity and balance in the large stones he worked.  Ed reportedly possessed only a fourth grade formal education, however apparently his grandfather in Latvia educated Ed at home.  In addition, it’s clear from some of Ed’s books on display at the Coral Castle, he read extensively and taught himself subjects such as astronomy and electricity.

In December 1951, Ed left a note on the gate reading, “Going to the Hospital.”  He boarded a bus to the Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami and died there three days later on December 7, 1951.

Following Ed’s death, the Coral Castle changed hands at least twice and remains under private ownership.  The grounds are neat and well maintained, with friendly, informative, and helpful guides.  My only criticism is of the “official” story.

It seems, like with many similar attractions throughout the world, the present owners decided to “liven-up” the story of the Coral Castle in order to make it more “interesting” or “mysterious.”  They claim no one knows how Ed completed his work, yet his tools are on display.  He used age-old, simple methods, working slowly, deliberately, and carefully.  I don’t mean to take away from Ed’s work, which is very impressive for one man, however it’s not an unknown mystery.

The “official” story claims no one ever saw Ed work or witnessed his move from Florida City to Homestead.  Yet, photos on display show Ed’s block and tackle system rigged up.  Other period photos show Ed at work.  In Mr. Irwin’s book, he describes Ed’s move (Irwin even helped Ed move his tools).  In reality, Ed made a deal with a local farmer for use of the farmer’s flatbed trailer and Ed took nearly a year to move everything from Florida City to Homestead.  Irwin’s book even includes a copy of a period newspaper article regarding the move.  As too no one seeing Ed work, Mr. Irwin offers a simple explanation: Ed was highly safety-conscious and didn’t want anyone near who might be injured or killed as he moved the heavy stones.

Finally, we have the story of Ed’s “Sweet Sixteen,” the girl who left him the night before his wedding.  Mr. Irwin claims Ed talked about a lost love while he was in Florida City, but Irwin was never convinced the woman actually existed, instead believing it was just a interesting back-story Ed devised for his work.  However, after Ed moved to Homestead, Irwin claims he stopped using the story all together, at one point even telling Irwin he left that story at Florida City.  Ed himself in his pamphlet “Sweet Sixteen,” states his Sweet Sixteen isn’t a particular person, but instead his ideal love.

Overall, the Coral Castle is a very interesting site.  Instead of a tribute to lost love, I believe the Coral Castle is a tribute to man’s ingenuity and the possibilities if one only sets his mind to accomplishing his goal.

2010 All rights reserved.  This copyrighted material may not be reposted or reproduced in any form without permission.]

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