The Coral Castle, one of the oddest roadside oddities

  • This carving of the moon over the Coral Castle first caught my eye as we drive down the Dixie Highway in Florida.

By Judy Nichols

The Coral Castle, not really coral or a castle, is a charming roadside oddity filled with mystery and romance.

We stumbled upon it last year on our trip to the Everglades.

There, on the side of the Dixie Highway, I saw a crescent moon made of stone poking up through billboards, palm trees and other roadside distractions.

What the heck is that, I said, as Tom, the driver’s, head whipped around in a decidedly-not-safe manner. We were in the wrong lane, so we had to go a few miles before we could turn around to investigate.

I confess, roadside oddities are my addiction, like a stop on California’s Highway 1 in the 1980s where retired circus and movie animals were displayed and a lion nearly doused my stepfather with his firehose-sized spray, or the Arizona roadside museum where my son and I saw Hitler’s car, or Bedrock City, the Flintstones roadside attraction where we took my nephews in the snow near the Grand Canyon which, sadly, will be torn down.

The Coral Castle, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, is a fine example.

Its walls enclose amazing monuments to a lost love. No one can explain how they were built.

Our guide led us into the castle and shared the story.

It begins with Edward Leedskalnin, who was born in Riga, Latvia, on August 10, 1887. He was supposed to marry his true love, Agnes, when he was 26 and she was 16. Slightly skeevy, but not completely out of the realm of 1880s reality. He referred to her as his “Sweet Sixteen.” OK, skeevy. She apparently dumped him the day before the ceremony, and he left Latvia brokenhearted.

Ed lived in Canada, California and Texas, but moved to Florida in 1918 when he developed tuberculosis. He started building a monument to his lost love, constructing it out of huge slabs of rock weighing tons. And this scrawny, 5-foot, 100-pound, lovelorn guy did it all alone, with handmade tools and no big machines. In 1936, when development threatened Florida City, he moved the monument 10 miles to Homestead and continued to build, quarrying the stone just feet from where the castle walls now stand.

Ed’s monument contains more than 1,100 tons of oolite limestone, a sedimentary rock composed of fossil shells and coral, that sits under only a few inches of topsoil in Florida. Each wall section is 8 feet tall, 4 feet wide and 3 feet thick, and weighs more than 5.8 tons.

Ed used no mortar, carving the rocks so skillfully that they fit together with no daylight coming through. In the decades since construction, they have not shifted.

Ed worked on the castle from 1923-1951. Some compare the construction to Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Giza. Others say the only other tribute that compares is the Taj Mahal, built over 20 years and by several thousand slaves, as a monument to the emperor’s wife.

He did most of his work at night, in secret. When asked how he did it, he told people that he knew “the secret of the pyramids,” understood the laws of weight and leverage, and used a “perpetual motion holder.”

There are a few pictures showing him using ropes and pulleys, but some people thought he used supernatural powers, or levitated the slabs with magnets.

In the 1940s, if you rang the bell twice, Ed would come down from the living quarters on the second floor of the castle tower, ask you for a quarter (10 cents at Florida City) and give you a tour.

He would show you the 8-ton gate that a child could push open with a finger. Our guide remembered doing it when she visited as a girl.

Ed would relate the story of his lost love as he showed you a telescope that points to the North Star, carvings of stars and planets and an accurate sundial. There are two tables, one heart shaped and one in the shape of Florida, with a depression where Lake Okeechobee would be. There is a barbecue, a water well, a fountain, rocking chairs, a bathtub, beds and a throne. Most are made from single pieces of stone that weighed between 14 and 27 tons each.

Our group, looked through the telescope, rocked on the chairs, and sat around the bittersweet love table. I started to feel sad for skeevy old Ed. He really must have loved Agnes. She was invited to visit the castle several times, but never came. When Billy Idol saw Ed’s monument, he was inspired to write his hit song, “Sweet Sixteen.”

In November of 1951, Ed left a sign on the front gate that said, “Going to the Hospital.” He died there in December.

Inside the castle, they found $35,000 that Ed saved from tours, books and pamphlets he wrote and sold on magnetic current, domestic and political issues, and some money received from selling a piece of the property for the highway.

The castle was left to a nephew, then sold. Today, it’s owned by a private company that sells tours.

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