The Mysterious Coral Castle: A Fanciful Myth

About 30 miles south of Miami, Florida, in a town called Homestead, lies an unusual—some would say impossible—structure, composed of coral rock. Called the Coral Castle, it has a colorful past.  It was the life's work of a reclusive Latvian immigrant named Edward Leedskalnin, who built the complex after being jilted by his sixteen-year-old sweetheart on their wedding day.

As a tribute to his love, Leedskalnin allegedly cut, quarried, and raised the castle, consisting of more than 1,000 tons of coral rock formed into furniture and large slabs. He began his work in 1920 and continued until his death in 1951.

Under any circumstances the castle is a remarkable feat, though how exactly the man did it has puzzled many, for he supposedly worked without assistance or the use of modern machinery.

Many sources suggest that the castle is scientifically inexplicable. One typical magazine article claimed, "The question that has perplexed engineers and scientists for decades is how such a tiny, uneducated man single-handedly built such a place." According to the castle's Web site, "Coral Castle has baffled scientists, engineers, and scholars since its opening in 1923."

The castle has been featured in dozens of magazines and books on the unexplained, as well as on television shows such as "In Search Of," "That's Incredible" and "Ripley's Believe It Or Not."

British rocker Billy Idol even wrote a hit song about Leedskalnin's story, "Sweet Sixteen."

Over the decades, many stories and wild theories have emerged about Leedskalnin and his castle. Some say he levitated the blocks with his mind, or by singing to the stones. Others suggest Leedskalnin had arcane knowledge of magnetism and so-called "earth energies." One author suggested that perhaps Leedskalnin found that "there's no such thing as gravity." Since science supposedly could not explain the feat, wild speculation took hold.

It's easy to claim the castle defies scientific explanation, but searches for the investigations made by perplexed and baffled scientists come up empty. Despite the information on their Web site, the Coral Castle information booth was unable to identify a single scientist or engineer who had specifically examined the castle. This puts the claim in a whole new light, since "hasn't explained" is clearly not the same as "can't explain."

There is one detail that virtually all agree on: since the reclusive Leedskalnin spent nearly thirty years working mostly at night and away from prying eyes, no one actually saw him move the coral. Since no one saw the blocks actually being moved, no one can state for certain that the task was accomplished by Leedskalnin alone. The claim that Leedskalnin didn't use modern (post-1920s) tools is obviously true, but the mistake is in assuming that modern tools are required to move the large blocks of coral.

Ultimately—and ironically—the solution may lie in Leedskalnin's own simple explanation: that he did it using principles of weight and leverage. "I have discovered the secrets of the pyramids," he said, employing the same methods used by ancient Egyptians. If Leedskalnin was being truthful, then the mystery is solved, for the methods by which the Egyptian pyramids could be constructed are well understood (see, for example, Mark Lehner's 1997 book The Complete Pyramids).

Photos exist of large tripods, pulleys, and winches at the Coral Castle site, and several sources  (e.g., Wallace Wallington's Web site demonstrate how massive weights can be moved by one or two people using simple physics. (The comparisons to Egypt's pyramids are a red herring; there are vast differences in weight, material, and complexity between the castle's coral slabs and the huge stone pyramids at Giza. Because coral is porous, large blocks appear heavier than they actually are.)

Many mystery mongers arrogantly assume that those living in earlier times (such as Leedskalnin, or the ancient Egyptians) were not clever or resourceful enough to possibly have created impressive engineering feats without extraterrestial aid or mysterious powers. This view betrays an ignorance of history and sadly underestimates human ingenuity. It seems likely that if scientists haven't explained the Coral Castle specifically, it's because there's little to "explain." The Coral Castle mystery seems to be simply a matter of poorly-informed people who reject a mundane reality in favor of a fanciful myth.

Benjamin Radford is managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, and co-author of "Hoaxes, Myths, and Manias: Why We Need Critical Thinking."