The Barefoot Mailman – An Icon of the Palm Beaches

The Palm Beaches in Florida are home to beautiful skies, cool waters, The Carlisle Palm Beach community and an unexpected icon of life in the area: the Barefoot Mailman. This legendary figure is a mainstay of the Palm Beaches, telling the real-life tale of men who lived the phrase often associated with the United States Postal Service:

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

That motto was inscribed on New York City’s General Post Office Building in 1914, inspired by a George Herbert Palmer’s translation of Histories by Herodotus.

Find out more about the real-life history of the Barefoot Mailman and how the legend fits into the Palm Beaches today.

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The Real Story of the Barefoot Mailman

Due to a lack of roads, a man on foot carried mail from Jupiter to Miami beginning in 1867. He helped cover Star Route 6451, which was started in the northern end of Palm Beach County. After only two years of walking the beach delivering the mail, the route was suspended.

Later in the 1800s, the need for mail service arose again because of an influx of settlers and speculators, but there was still no mail route between Palm Beach and Miami. In December 1884, the U.S. Post Office reactivated Star Route 6451 from Lake Worth County to Miami and contracted with mail carriers to complete the route. They mostly walked along the beach, since there was no road connecting the 68-mile route. They also completed about 28 miles of the route by boat.

The route was originally called the “Barefoot Route,” with the mail carriers called “beach walkers” or “beach walkists.” The famous term “Barefoot Mailman” wouldn’t be coined for more than 50 years.

The barefoot route continued until 1892, when a rock road was finally completed to Lemon City from Lantana.

The Barefoot Route

Several men who walked the barefoot route made the 136-mile round trip from Palm Beach to Miami and back in six days.

According to “Pioneer Life in Southeast Florida” by Charles W. Pierce, here’s the route the Barefoot Mailman took:

  • Monday: Leave Palm Beach in the morning, traveling by boat to the southern end of the Lake Worth Lagoon. Cross over to the beach and walk down to the Orange Grove House of Refuge in what is now Delray Beach, then spend the night. 
  • Tuesday: Continue along the beach, walking to the House of Refuge in Fort Lauderdale. Spend the night.
  • Wednesday: Travel by boat down the New River to the inlet, then walk down the beach to Baker’s Haulover at the north end of Biscayne Bay. Travel down Biscayne Bay by boat to Miami and spend the night.
  • Thursday: Begin the return trip, arriving Saturday in Palm Beach.

The Lost Barefoot Mailman

The first contracted Barefoot Mailman was Edward Ruthven Bradley, a retired Chicago newsman and Lantana resident. He won a contract for the route in 1885 for a $600 bid. Later, Bradley became a Dade County school superintendent. The second mailman on the route was his son Louie, with whom he shared the route for two years.

The third mailman, though not the last, is the most famous – James E. “Ed” Hamilton. He took over the route in 1887 when Edward Bradley quit.

Hamilton was walking the route on Oct. 10, 1887, when he reported not feeling well while passing through Hypoluxo. When he failed to return to Lake Worth at the end of the week, a search was started for the missing mailman.

On the north bank of the Hillsboro Inlet, Hamilton’s clothes and other possessions were discovered. He had never arrived at the Fort Lauderdale House of Refuge on the south side, and his boat was missing.

Hamilton is presumed to have come upon the inlet and seen that the boat he usually used was gone. He then likely tried to swim across the inlet and drowned or was killed by an alligator. His body was never recovered.

A statue of the Barefoot Mailman along the shores of the Hillsboro Inlet was erected in memory of Hamilton.

The Barefoot Mailman in the Public Imagination

In 1939, artist Stevan Dohanos was contracted by the Treasury Department to paint a series of murals picturing the “Legend of James Edward Hamilton, Mail Carrier” to be displayed in the post office in West Palm Beach (one panel of which is depicted in the picture at the top of this article). Charles W. Pierce, who was postmaster in Boynton Beach and had been a carrier along the “barefoot route,” corresponded with Dohanos and provided a photo of Hamilton. Pierce used the term “barefoot mailman” in their communications, and the term stuck.

In 1943, Theodore Pratt wrote a novel, “The Barefoot Mailman,” based on a fictionalized account of the letter carriers.

The book community Goodreads carries this synopsis of the book:

“The time was the 1880’s – when Miami was little more than a mangrove swamp, Palm Beach was still looking for a name, dangerous beachcombers threatened respectable folk, and whole communities could live off goods from storm-wrecked ships thrown up by the waves.

“It was in this rough and ready Florida that young Steven Pierton took the job of ‘barefoot mailman’ – carrying letters barefoot over 100 miles of gleaming white sand between Jupiter Lighthouse and Miami, trying to cope with the elusive, enticing girl called Adie and fighting to thwart the schemes of the unscrupulous land spectator, Sylvanus Hurley.” 

The book was turned into a comedy film in 1951, “The Barefoot Mailman,” starring Robert Cummings, Terry Moore and Jerome Courtland. It closely hews to Pratt’s fictional story.

Today, the South Florida Council of Boy Scouts of America sponsors a 35-mile, two-day hike along portions of the trails used by the Barefoot Mailmen. During the annual hike, scouts carry actual U.S. Mail from Pompano Beach to South Miami Beach.

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