The words, “barefoot mailman”, evoke an interest and the listener wants to hear more.
Before there were any settlers on Lake Worth, there was some mail service to South Florida but it was slow and uncertain. In 1835, during the Seminole War, “Long John” Holman carried the mail from St. Augustine to Biscayne Bay, walking the beach by night and hiding in caves during the day. The caves were in the outcroppings of rock back from the beach, running out under the beach, with the entrance on the west side of what is now AlA. Florida bears didn’t hibernate but did use the caves.
From 1 July 1867 to 3 June 1868, Route #6451 began in New Smyrna with stops at Sand Point (Titusville), Indian River (Fort Pierce), Jupiter, Miami and Key West. The next year the route began in St. Augustine, with stops at Mantanzas, Palmetto and Port Orange before getting to Sand Point. The schedule called for a trip twice a month and return. Travel was by boat. W.H. Gleason of Miami was the mail contractor for that route.
Those who had settled on the shores of Lake Worth by the 1 870s had to depend on receiving mail whenever a trustworthy traveler brought it from Jupiter. As late as 1885, when Andrew Garnett came to Hypoluxo with two friends, there were still no roads, railroads or intracoastal waterway To send a letter the sixty miles to Miami, the letter had to go by boat to Jacksonville, by railroad to Cedar Keys on the West Coast north of Tampa, by steamer to Key West, and by schooner to Biscayne Bay where it was thrown overboard to be picked up by a smaller vessel which had been waiting for it. To have gone south the sixty miles would have meant a dangerous trip in a small boat on the open sea or a walk along the water’s edge with the problem of crossing two inlets.
Such a route along the beach known as the “Barefoot Mail Route” was established in 1885. Officially it was a Star Route. This meant that there was a contractor who was responsible for providing the carrier and overseeing the route. Theodore Pratt was the first to use the term “Barefoot Mailman” when he wrote a novel of that title.
E.R. Bradley of Lantana took the first job as carrier over the route that ran from Hypoluxo to Ft. Dallas, near the mouth of the Miami River. His son, Louis, carried the mail every other week.
The mail that arrived in Jupiter via boats on the Indian River was carried the seven miles south to Juno by a stage or hack line (mule and wagon) until the coming of the “Celestial Railroad” in July of 1889. In Juno the mail was transferred to a sailboat or steamer that made stops at the post offices scattered along the shores of Lake Worth. These were Lake Worth Village (near the inlet), Oak Lawn (Riviera), Palm Beach (near the site of the Flagler Museum), Figulus (the Potter place just south of the Bath and Tennis Club), and Jewell (Lake Worth). Lantana had an office after August 1889 and Hypoluxo since 1886.
When the Barefoot Route began, the carrier had to go to the Palm Beach office to pick up the mail destined for Miami. In 1886 the route was shortened by ten miles when Hypoluxo became the southern terminus of the route which had brought the mail from the north. Now he could wait for the mail to come to him.
The barefoot mailman took three days for the trip south, three days to return, with Sunday as a day of rest. The first night was spent at the Orange Grove House of Refuge (Delray Beach) which was only 5 miles south of his starting point. Early in the afternoon the mailman would be taken by boat from Garnett’s (the Hypoluxo postoffice was in his home) to the foot of the lake where he crossed the ridge near the site of the Boynton (South Lake Worth) Inlet to begin the first leg of his journey.
The second day’s journey was a twenty-five mile walk along the beach, at the edge of the water where the sand is the firmest. That day he had to cross the Hillsborough Inlet. At the end of the day he had reached the New River House of Refuge. This was located near the present day Hugh Taylor Birch State Park in Fort Lauderdale. There were no settlers in the area in the 1880s.
The mail carrier began the third day by rowing four miles on New River to the New River Inlet, which at that date was near present day Bahia Mar, north of Port Everglades. From the south side of that inlet it was a ten mile walk to the north end of Biscayne Bay (near Baker’s Haulover.) It was hilly and the hardest part of his walk. The fifth house of refuge was in that vicinity but it was farther south, off the beaten track. The carriers seldom visited there. From the north end of the bay the mailman had a mile trip by boat to Ft. Dallas, near the mouth of the Miami River. A sailboat was used but in the event of a lack of wind, the carrier was expected to row.
Charles Pierce, who at one time carried the mail, says in Pioneer Life in Southeast Florida that it was a 136 mile round trip: 56 by boat and 80 miles on foot For this the men were paid $600 per year and they were docked if they missed a trip. Boats were hidden at the inlets for the exclusive use of the mail carrier. The occasional traveler wishing to make the trip to or from Miami would pay $5.00 as a “foot passenger” for the privilege of walking with the mailman. This afforded the traveler company, protection, and a means of crossing the streams and inlets.
Ed Hamilton, one of the “Kentucky boys” of Hypoluxo, took over the route in the fall of 1887. George H.K. Charters was the mail contractor at that time. Hamilton’s service was to be cut short as, on October 11, when he reached the Hillsborough Inlet, his boat was on the south side of the inlet. When he did not return at the appointed time, Charters and Steve Andrews, keeper of the Orange Grove House of Refuge, went looking for him. Andrews had told Hamilton that a stranger had gone down the beach a few days before him and that Andrews had warned him not to use the boat; it was government property At the inlet, the two men found the mail pouch hanging in a tree and Hamilton’s clothes nearby, indicating that he had tried to swim the inlet to retrieve the boat. There were periods when the inlet was shallow enough to wade across but on this occasion the inlet was swollen from recent rains and was swarming with alligators. Some believed Hamilton was killed by alligators, others by sharks. His body was never found. It was later learned that a stranger had visited another house of refuge. When asked how he had crossed the inlet, he made up a story which later proved false. He was tried, but not convicted, of tampering with Hamilton’s boat.
Andrew Garnett took the route after the death of Hamilton with the understanding that Charles Pierce would carry the mail on occasion. Other early mail carriers were H.J. Burkhardt of Palm Beach and several short time carriers from the Biscayne area. Many of the settlers became mailmen and later postmasters in order to earn cash, a scarce commodity on the lake. The Barefoot Route lasted from 1885 to 1893, at which time a hack or stage line was established between Lantana and Lemon City.
Drawing of barefoot mailman--likely Charlie Pierce (Photo from boyntonbeach.com)