Reaching Out: Mail Routes
Mail service first came south as far as Jupiter in 1867, with Star Route #6451. (When the postmaster general hired a private contractor for a mail route without specifying how to get the job done, it was identified in Post Office records with an asterisk, or “star.”) Star Route #6451 started by boat from New Smyrna to Key West, with stops at Sand Point (now Titusville), St. Lucie, and Jupiter.
A beach-walker was later added to carry the mail on foot from Jupiter to Miami, with boats kept to cross the inlets at Lake Worth, Hillsboro, and New River (Ft. Lauderdale). After two years, service was suspended between Jupiter and Miami, and once again the settlers on Lake Worth were left “out of the loop.” During this period, it took up to eight weeks for a letter to get from Palm Beach to Miami, first heading northward on a boat to the top of Lake Worth, then across the haulover on a tram railway (built in 1878) from the lake to the sawgrass route that led to Jupiter. Charles W. “Chuck” Pierce (son of Charlie Pierce, barefoot mailman) described the rest of the roundabout route:
[This letter would travel] from Jupiter up the Indian River to Titusville by steamer, from Titusville across to Palatka, … and then from Palatka up the St. Johns River to Jacksonville, … then from Jacksonville across to Cedar Keys on the little railroad known as the JT&KW— Jacksonville, Tampa, & Key West Railroad. The Key West comes into it by reason of the fact that from Cedar Keys, the western terminus, … this letter got on a schooner and went to Key West, and then from Key West, came up to Miami.
In December 1884 part of old Star Route #6451 was reactivated to link the Lake Worth communities with the Miami area. Mail carriers walked barefoot along the beach in order to avoid slogging through the inland swamps. The six-day round trip covered 136 miles—80 on foot plus 56 in small boats. Over the course of a year, the “Barefoot Mailmen” walked about 7,000 miles. Mail arrived in Jupiter via boats on the Indian River and was carried overland 7.5 miles to Juno by a mule-driven wagon, or hack line, then transferred to a sailboat or steamer that made stops at the post offices along Lake Worth. Until 1887 when the Palm Beach Post Offcie opened, mail destined for Miami was left at the Lake Worth Post Office for the mailman to pick up.
One of the barefoot mailmen, James Edward “Ed” Hamilton, died in the course of duty. In October 1887, someone borrowed the skiff he used to cross the Hillsboro Inlet and left it on the other side. Hamilton either drowned or was attacked by alligators or sharks when he tried to swim across the inlet; his body was never found.
After Hamilton’s death, the route that had ended in Jupiter was extended to include Palm Beach. Hypoluxo became the northern terminus of the Miami Route, shortening the previous route by ten miles. The new contract was won by Andrew Garnett, who had come to Lake Worth from Kentucky with Hamilton and had recently resigned as Hypoluxo’s postmaster. Garnett, with Charlie Pierce as assistant, kept the new route for two years. The last trip on the Barefoot Route was in January 1893, when a “stage” started carrying the mail.
Extensive swamps in southeast Florida made road construction extremely difficult. Nevertheless, as early as 1838, during the Second Seminole War, military troops carved out a rudimentary Military Trail to move supplies and forces from Jupiter to the New River. In Palm Beach County, Military Trail started as the southward extension of an eight-mile army trail established in 1834 from the Indian River to Fort Pierce. It was built on the pine ridges to keep boots and wagon wheels out of swampy water. The entire trail to Fort Dallas near present-day Miami stretched 160 miles. Today Military Trail is also known as State Road 809, but long-time residents recall when it was a dirt road with little reason to go west of it.
© Historical Society of Palm Beach County.