Florida’s Barefoot Mailmen

The next time your computer takes a few extra seconds to send an email message, just be thankful you didn’t have to hand-deliver it yourself. Be especially grateful you didn’t have to deliver it by walking sixty miles barefoot in the blazing Florida sun.

That challenging scenario was a reality for the first men to carry mail between what is now Palm Beach and Miami. The United States Postal Service established a route between these two points in the 1880s, but the “route” was only on paper. It certainly didn’t follow a railroad, road, or even a trail. None of these existed at the time. The only reliable trail from Hypoluxo near Lake Worth to Miami and Biscayne Bay lay along the Atlantic coast.

One of six panels in a mural commemorating the barefoot mailmen of South Florida. The mural hangs in the West Palm Beach post office on Olive Avenue (photo circa 1950).

One of six panels in a mural commemorating the barefoot mailmen of South Florida. The mural hangs in the West Palm Beach post office on Olive Avenue (photo circa 1950).

Hence the barefoot mailman. The Postal Service hired mail carriers to walk the mail down from Hypoluxo to Miami, using the firmer sand along the beach as a highway. Shoes were more hindrance than help, so the barefoot mailmen simply didn’t use them. The entire expedition took about a week, the carrier leaving Monday morning and returning Saturday evening. He was typically issued a tin pail, a cup, hard biscuits, coffee, a hatchet, and some matches, all of which he carried along with the mail in a sack slung over one shoulder.

Excerpt of an 1883 map showing official postal routes through Florida. No route connected Miami with the Lake Worth region at this time. Instead, mail for Miami had to come from Galveston, New Orleans, Tampa, or Cedar Key via Key West. The "barefoot" route along the Atlantic coast shortened the time required to deliver mail to Miami.

Excerpt of an 1883 map showing official postal routes through Florida. No route connected Miami with the Lake Worth region at this time. Instead, mail for Miami had to come from Galveston, New Orleans, Tampa, or Cedar Key via Key West. The “barefoot” route along the Atlantic coast shortened the time required to deliver mail to Miami.

The trip required crossing several rivers and inlets. Carriers stashed boats near all of the crossings so they could get across safely without damaging the mail. Sometimes other travelers would accompany a carrier so they too could use the boats.

One of these crossings was the scene of a most unfortunate tragedy. James “Ed” Hamilton, a young mail carrier, was headed for Miami in October 1887 when he discovered that the boat he normally used to cross the Hillsboro Inlet was tied up on the opposite side. He secured his mailbag in a tree, removed his clothing, and apparently attempted to swim the inlet and retrieve the boat. What happened next is uncertain, but young Hamilton met his end, possibly carried out to sea by a current or attacked by an alligator. He was never seen again. His memory is honored by a memorial plaque at Pompano and a six-panel mural by artist Stevan Dohanos entitled “Legend of James Edward Hamilton, Mail Carrier,” which hangs in the West Palm Beach post office.

Another panel from the Olive Avenue post office mural in West Palm Beach, this one depicting James Edward

Another panel from the Olive Avenue post office mural in West Palm Beach, this one depicting James Edward “Ed” Hamilton rowing his boat carefully past a few alligators (photo circa 1950).

In late 1892, contractors completed the first county-maintained road between Lantana and Lemon City along the coast. The U.S. Postal Service ended the “barefoot” route the next year. Interest in the tradition of the barefoot mailman lives on, however. Theodore Pratt, an author of Florida fiction who lived in the Lake Worth area, penned a successful novel called The Barefoot Mailman in 1943. Columbia Pictures made the story into a movie in 1951, starring Robert Cummings, Terry Moore, Jerome Courtland, and John Russell.

Actress Terry Moore during the filming of Columbia Pictures' film adaptation of Thedore Pratt's The Barefoot Mailman (1951).

Actress Terry Moore during the filming of Columbia Pictures’ film adaptation of Thedore Pratt’s The Barefoot Mailman (1951).

Search the Florida Photographic Collection for more images relating to the early days of Miami, Palm Beach, and other cities along Florida’s Atlantic coast. And don’t forget to share your favorites on Facebook or Pinterest!