South Florida History
6:25 am
Fri December 28, 2012

Virginia Key Beach Park Works To Restore Swimming

A restoration project is underway for Virginia Key Beach Park.
A restoration project is underway for Virginia Key Beach Park.
Credit Guy Forchion

Just a few miles away from downtown Miami lies a natural beach in the city’s largest park.

The 82-acre Virginia Key Beach Park remains a bit of a hidden gem. The historic beach still attracts those looking for a quiet place to relax despite one drawback.

In season, about 2,000 people visit Virginia Key Beach Park every weekend even though swimming isn’t permitted.

“It’s a disadvantage - one we’re overcoming," said Guy Forchion, head of the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust.

During segregation, Virginia Key Beach Park was designated as the area's 'colored-only' beach.
During segregation, Virginia Key Beach Park was designated as the area's 'colored-only' beach.
Credit Public Domain

Forchion calls the park a spiritual place. It was designated as a colored-only beach back in 1945 when segregation was the law of the land.

Maud Newbold first visited the park as a child. She says it was a spiritual and cultural hub.

“I just enjoyed riding the carousel," said Newbold. "I mean it just makes me feel as if I were in some kind of fairyland, up and down with the music going along the way. That, I enjoyed more than anything else.”      

Newbold says there was also a dangerous side to the park.  A recently-completed NOAA study found strong, swift currents and an abrupt drop off of more than six feet just 50 to 100 yards off the coast.

“Unfortunately, many people drowned," said Newbold.

The conditions that made swimming so hazardous then still plague the area. Forchion says that prompted the city of Miami to ban swimming at Virginia Key Beach Park.

“And we’re also in a different day today, standards, lawsuits, liabilities and the such," said Forchion.

The trust is considering several options to make the beach safe, including real-time underwater monitoring of the current and an on-shore natural pool, but they all carry a hefty price tag.

Enid Pinkney is the group’s vice chair.

“We want it to be like it was, and it’s not as it was if there’s no swimming," said Pinkney. "So whatever they need to do to make it safe for swimming needs to be done.”  

In spite of the swimming ban, the park continues to attract visitors.

Pinkney calls it a testimony to the spirits of those who fought to have the beach established in the first place.

“Their spirits are just wandering all over the place making the rest of us feel comfortable there," said Pinkney.

The park has been restored to the way it looked during its heyday with amenities such as the carousel, mini train and concession stand. The trust is now focusing on building a small cultural center and museum on the property. The permitting process is expected to begin next year.

Since this story first aired in the spring, the trust has added a 9-hole disc golf course, and last month the trust hosted the First Annual Holiday Fair at the park. The event featured fair rides, music and a hog roasting contest. All proceeds went to aid the park's restoration.