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!

Flagler’s Royal Poinciana Hotel

Henry Flagler opened the Royal Poinciana Hotel in Palm Beach on February 11, 1894 with only 17 guests. The paint was fresh, and the electric lighting was so new it was advertised as a unique amenity. Flagler had built this palace as a winter playground for America’s richest travelers, planting it right off the main line of his Florida East Coast Railway. If they so chose, his guests could conduct their private railway cars right up to the hotel’s entrance.

Royal Poinciana Hotel - Palm Beach (circa 1900).

Royal Poinciana Hotel – Palm Beach (circa 1900).

The 17 original guests must have had a good time, because Flagler expanded the hotel almost immediately after it was opened, increasing its capacity to 1,000 guests. The size of the structure was immense; the Royal Poinciana had over 3 miles of hallways. With the telephone still a rare luxury, hotel employees were obliged to carry messages between guest rooms and the front desk by bicycle. At one point the hotel was reputed to be the largest wooden structure in the world.

Porch of the Royal Poinciana (circa 1920s).

Porch of the Royal Poinciana (circa 1920s).

Flagler spared little if any expense entertaining his wealthy patrons. Guests could play golf, swim in the pool, or listen to the orchestra, which played every day in the hotel pavilion. Guides took those inclined to fish out into the Atlantic, sometimes bringing in dozens of mackerel in a single day’s catch.

Just in case some of the guests found all of this luxury a bit monotonous, the hotel staff occasionally planned special events. In one instance, pictured below, a parade of decorated boats was floated past the hotel for the amusement of its patrons.

A floating parade of decorated boats in front of the Royal Poinciana Hotel at Palm Beach (circa 1900).

A floating parade of decorated boats in front of the Royal Poinciana Hotel at Palm Beach (circa 1900).

To keep the sights, sounds, and smells of Palm Beach as clean as possible, the designers limited the presence of the railroad and automobiles. Also, hotel staff rarely used horses, mules, or other animals to transport supplies or people. The primary modes of transportation on Palm Beach for guests were bicycles and “wheelchairs,” pedi-cabs in our own parlance.

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A “wheelchair” or pedi-cab carrying guests in the vicinity of the Royal Poinciana Hotel (circa 1900).

Running such a complex operation as the Royal Poinciana Hotel naturally required a large and varied labor force. By the time the hotel was up and running Flagler had hired over a thousand workers. He built quarters for them across Lake Worth from the hotel in what is now called West Palm Beach. The employees used rowboats to get to and from work for each shift.

Plumbers and mechanics at the Royal Poinciana Hotel before it opened (1893).

Plumbers and mechanics at the Royal Poinciana Hotel before it opened (1893).

The Royal Poinciana commanded the high-end hospitality market in Palm Beach for a number of years, but even such a sprawling wilderness of luxury as this had its weaknesses. In 1925, the nearby Breakers Hotel burned and was rebuilt. Since it was newer and offered updated amenities, it drew many guests away from the Royal Poinciana. Furthermore, the Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928 badly damaged the north wing of the hotel, shifting part of it off its foundation. The arrival of the Great Depression in 1929 was the final blow. The Royal Poinciana Hotel closed in 1934, and was torn down within a year.

Aerial view of the Royal Poinciana Hotel during its final years (circa 1925).

Aerial view of the Royal Poinciana Hotel during its final years (circa 1925).

The Royal Poinciana Hotel is just one of Florida’s many historic hotels that have come and gone over the years. For more photos of the Royal Poinciana and other palatial buildings, search the Florida Photographic Collection.

 

 

Then and Now: The Breakers

Open for more than 100 years, The Breakers is one of the landmarks of Palm Beach. Henry Flagler built The Palm Beach Inn in 1896. When Flagler expanded the hotel, he renamed it “The Breakers.”

Now” photos courtesy of VISIT FLORIDA

Entrance to The Breakers hotel

Entrance to The Breakers hotel (1920s)

 

The Breakers (Pete Cross for VISIT FLORIDA), 2013

The Breakers (Pete Cross for VISIT FLORIDA), 2013

 

Breakers Hotel and golf links

The Breakers hotel and golf links (1920s)

 

The Breakers (Pete Cross for VISIT FLORIDA), 2013

The Breakers (Pete Cross for VISIT FLORIDA), 2013

 

Fountain in the courtyard at the Breakers hotel - Palm Beach, Florida

Fountain in the courtyard at the Breakers hotel – Palm Beach, Florida (1920s)

 

The Breakers (Pete Cross for VISIT FLORIDA), 2013

The Breakers (Pete Cross for VISIT FLORIDA), 2013

 

Swimming pool at the Breakers hotel - Palm Beach, Florida

Swimming pool at the Breakers hotel – Palm Beach, Florida (1920s)

 

The Breakers (Pete Cross for VISIT FLORIDA), 2013

The Breakers (Pete Cross for VISIT FLORIDA), 2013

 

North loggia at the Breakers hotel - Palm Beach, Florida

North loggia at the Breakers hotel – Palm Beach, Florida (1920s)

 

The Breakers (Pete Cross for VISIT FLORIDA), 2013

The Breakers (Pete Cross for VISIT FLORIDA), 2013

 

Main dining room of the Breakers hotel - Palm Beach, Florida (1920s)

Main dining room of the Breakers hotel – Palm Beach, Florida (1920s)

 

The Breakers (Pete Cross for VISIT FLORIDA), 2013

The Breakers (Pete Cross for VISIT FLORIDA), 2013