In the early 1880s, if you wanted to send a letter from, let’s say, Lake Worth to Lemon City, the trip would typically go like this: First, the letter would be sent to northern Palm Beach County for a steamer trip up the Indian River. From there it would be sent to New York, where it would then travel by tramp steamer to Cuba. Its journey would finish by schooner to Biscayne Bay, then to Lemon City, which would later become a part of the city of Miami. Standard time – seven weeks.
In 1885, the U.S. Post Office hired its first “beach-walker,” a man who made the trip from Palm Beach down to Lemon City and back in a week. He walked along 40 miles of sand running by the beach (for which shoes were useless), as well as rowing or sailing the other 28 miles of inlets and waterways that wouldn’t have bridges until many decades later.
The first person to take on that daunting task has a name familiar to readers of this column. Remember Guy Bradley, the martyred game warden who was hired to stop plume hunting in the Everglades? His father, retired Chicago newsman Edwin Bradley, won the first contract for the route from the postal service. He was paid $600 a year, and he and his son Louie walked the route on alternating weeks for two years.
Bradley departed Palm Beach on Monday morning in a boat headed south to the end of the Lake Worth Lagoon. In a mailbag slung over his shoulder, he carried Post Office-issued hard biscuits and coffee. Tools and utensils issued included a hatchet, a cup, a tin pail and some matches.
On land at the south shore of the lagoon, Bradley (and the eight or so carriers who would follow him in the ensuing seven years) secured the craft. He then crossed over to the beach, walking on the firm sand down to what is now Delray Beach. He’d spend the night in the Orange Grove House of Refuge. It was one of five stations built along the Florida coast in 1876 by the U.S. Life-Saving Service (later merged with the Coast Guard). The houses, made of Florida pine and manned by families under civilian contract, were there to shelter shipwrecked sailors. Five more were built in 1885.
On Tuesday, the carrier would trek down the beach to the Fort Lauderdale House of Refuge to spend that night. On Wednesday, it was travel by boat down the New River to its inlet. Boats for each crossing were stored at designated points onshore. After the New River crossing, the carrier would continue on to what is now the Haulover Inlet, which feeds into the very north end of Biscayne Bay. From there, the carriers sailed down Biscayne Bay to Miami. On Thursday the return trip began, with a Saturday arrival in Palm Beach.
The Barefoot Mailman route continued until 1892 when a rock road was completed from Lantana to Lemon City.
During the days of these hardy “beach walkists,” there was no mention of a “Barefoot Mailman.” The first known use of the phrase came in 1939 correspondence from Charles William Pierce, one of the legendary carriers. He used the term in communicating with a painter working on murals of another carrier for the West Palm Beach Post Office.
Maybe you’re thinking: What if the boats weren’t in the spot where they were supposed to be? Today, there’d be no shortage of miscreants available to paddle off with a rowboat.
Such occurrences were apparently unheard of – except for an October day in 1887. The subject of the above-mentioned mural, James Edward Hamilton – the third “Barefoot Mailman” – was headed south on the route when he discovered that the boat for crossing the Hillsboro Inlet was tied up on the other side. Historians, novelists and screenwriters have all speculated on what happened next. His mailbag and clothing were found on the north shore, but he was never seen again. Did he attempt to swim the inlet to retrieve the boat? Did he drown? Was he carried out to sea by the current? Was he attacked by a shark or a gator?
His story was told in the Theodore Pratt novel The Barefoot Mailman in 1943. The book was made into a 1951 film starring Robert Cummings. And the story is still evoked in a six-part mural hanging in the West Palm Beach Post Office. Artist Stevan Dohanos entitled his mural “Legend of James Edward Hamilton, Mail Carrier.”