The barefoot mail route was so named because the carriers walked barefoot
on the hard sand at the water's edge. These men have come to be known collectively
as the Barefoot Mailman. The carriers' route was approximately 68 miles
long—28 miles by small boat and 40 on foot along the beach.
Each Monday the mailman would leave Palm Beach, row a boat to the foot of Lake Worth, then walk five miles to the Orange Grove House of Refuge (established for shipwrecked sailors) in Delray Beach, where he would spend the night. The next day he walked 25 miles, crossing the Hillsboro Inlet by row boat, then traveled on to the New River House of Refuge in Fort Lauderdale, where he spent the night. On the following day he would row a boat four miles, down to the south side of the New River Inlet, take to the beach again for ten miles of beach walking, thus reaching Baker's Haulover at the head of Biscayne Bay. Twelve miles down the bay, a rowboat would take him to the post office at Miami. He would spend the night in Miami, leave the next morning and return to Palm Beach by Saturday afternoon.
One might wonder how the mailman could ensure having a row boat each time he had to traverse a waterway. He didn't drag one behind him, you can be sure. At each water crossing, a boat was always waiting where the carrier had left it. At that time there was a strict, unwritten code against taking someone's boat and leaving it on the opposite shore. In South Florida such an act was comparable to stealing a horse in the Old West.
The week-long route was a great improvement over the mail route available before 1885. Prior to that year, a letter from Palm Beach to Miami began its trip at the lighthouse community of Jupiter, 22 miles north, then by an Indian River steamboat to the rail head at Titusville. By train it continued to New York's port and from there by steamer to Havana. From Cuba, a trading schooner took the letter to Miami. It took a voyage of 3,000 miles and a period of six weeks to two months for a letter to arrive in Miami. When the United States Post Office decided to improve its Florida service in 1885 by establishing the barefoot route, it was a welcome decision.
When the job was put out to bid, one of the men interested in the route was Lake Worth resident, Edward Ruthven Bradley, a retired Chicago newsman who later became Dade County School Superintendent. Bradley won the contract, which called for one round trip per week for the salary of $600 per year. The job was very demanding, but he and his eldest son, Louie, took turns carrying the mail for about two years.
The Bradleys gave up the contract in early 1887 and the Matthaus brothers, Frederick and Otto, took over. Both brothers walked the route, but they also hired other men to carry mail along the beach route. One of these men was James E. “Ed”Hamilton, who had come to Hypoluxo Island from Trigg County, Kentucky. Thinking the task of walking the beach would be more enjoyable than farming tomatoes, he was eager to start.
Stormy weather came regularly near the end of September and early October in 1887, so that all the low lands were under water. On October 10, 1887, Ed arrived in Hypoluxo with the mail pouch from Palm Beach, having rowed ten miles in his small skiff. Although he mentioned that we was not feeling well, he insisted on continuing his trip. Due back on Saturday afternoon, he did not return.
Suspicion focused on a stranger noticed by Charles Coman, the keeper at
the Fort Lauderdale Station (New River House of Refuge). Coman had heard
the stranger coming from the beach, having arrived from the north. When
the station keeper asked the stranger how he crossed the inlet, the reply
was that a party of hunters at the inlet brought him across in their portable
boat. Was the stranger lying? Could he have used Hamilton's boat and left
it on the opposite side?
Two of Hamilton's friends, Louie Bradley and Charles Pierce, came down by boat, a 21-mile trip, to follow the route and search for the missing mailman. When they arrived at Hillsboro Inlet, the boat Hamilton would have used had disappeared. His mail pouch, trousers and shirt were hanging on the limb of a tree. They also found a spoon and a bottle of pain killer, and near the edge of the water were Hamilton's underclothes, showing that he had left them to swim the inlet. The indicated was very plain that he had seen his boat on the other side of the inlet and had plunged into the water to retrieve it.
To Hamilton's friends, the possibility of his drowning was out of the question, for he was an excellent swimmer and the current at this spot was not very strong. There were sharks here at this time of year, but there was no sign of any when the search was taking place. There were, however, numerous alligator tracks. The place was swarming with them. Even an excellent swimmer might not have escaped them.
The stranger whom Coman had suspected of foul play was later charged with tampering with government property (Hamilton's row boat) and was tried in Federal Court in Jacksonville. He was acquitted and his name was never entered in the court records.
The barefoot route was continued until 1892 when a rock road was completed from Jupiter to Miami. The Bay Biscayne Stage Line took over the mail contract at that time. Henry John Burkhardt, who settled at Hillsboro Inlet in 1891, was the last of the barefoot mailmen.
The names of ten of these historic walkers are still known, but the number was greater than that. At one point, any hardy traveler leading north out of Miami or south out of Jupiter was pressed into service. Other mail carriers who were paid to regularly walk the barefoot route were George Charter, George Sears, Edward C. Pent and Andrew Garnett. Garnett later became Dade County Treasurer, school board member and Hypoluxo Postmaster. The town of Hypoluxo was then in Dade County but is now in Palm Beach County.
The term “Barefoot Mailman”was used for the first time in Theodore Pratt's book of that title, published in 1943. The walking carriers have been immortalized in several ways, not only in books by authors other than Pratt, but also in a 1951 movie starring Robert Cummings. The mail carriers' accomplishment is kept alive by annual Boy Scout Barefoot Mailman hikes along the beach.
On the grounds of the Hillsboro Lighthouse on the north side of the inlet is a plaque in memory of the most famous of carriers:
Another local landmark which paid tribute to the Barefoot Mailman was the restaurant in Hillsboro Beach by the same name. Although the restaurant burned down in 1988, a monument on the beach remains. Dedicated to these brave men, it reads:In Memory of
Historic preservation advocate, Michael Bornstein assumes the role of the Barefoot Mailman once each year by retracing the footsteps from Hypoluxo to the Miami River. He stopped at the Hillsboro Lighthouse for a special ceremony in honor of Ed Hamilton. This historical reenactment usually takes place in early March.
by Sculptor, Frank Varga (Varga Studios, Delray Beach)
The original stone statue of the Barefoot Mailman by Frank Varga moved to its new home on the shores of the Hillsboro Inlet next to the Hillsboro Lighthouse.
A groundbreaking ceremony was held on Monday, June 16, 2003. Present at the ceremony from left to right are Carmen McGarry—official historian of the Town of Hillsboro Beach, James Woolsey—Hillsboro Beach Police Chief, Hib Casselberry and Dave Butler—HLPS Officers, Chad Lovato—USCG ATN., and Art Makenian—Immediate Past Commanders of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary.
JoCarmen McGarry, James Woolsey, Hib Casselberry, Dave Butler, Chad Lovato, Art Makenian
© 2001-present Hillsboro Lighthouse Preservation Society