While visiting Ft. Lauderdale, I stood in the place where they found the Barefoot Mailman’s folded clothing in 1887 and looked across the inlet, wondering his fate.
Between 1885 and 1892, a small group of “barefoot” mailmen carried the U.S. mail for miles along the Florida coast from the Palm Beach area to Miami. They hiked along the beach and used rowboats to cross three inlets along the way: Hillsboro, Port Everglades, and Haulover. It took three days each way, all for around $600 a year. Between the sharks, alligators, bears, and storms, this was a dangerous job.
The best known of these carriers was immortalized by a best-selling book and movie. He was Ed Hamilton, who had only been on the job for a few months before he disappeared. They began a search for him after he didn’t return from the six-day trip.
The search parties scoured the coastline, Along the north bank of Hillsboro Inlet, at the current location of the Hillsboro Lighthouse, all they found were his knapsack containing mail and his folded clothing.
No one knows for sure what happened to Ed. The searchers thought that someone had used the rowboat and it was on the opposite shore. Many believe that he left his clothes and mail pouch on the beach and swam to the other side. Something happened, and he never was seen again. The official story is that he drowned and his body was never found.
It is the story I have heard since I was a Scout. I always dreamed of participating in the annual hike. But I never had the chance.
While visiting the lighthouse, our guide shared that there may have been a woman involved. Rumor says that they staged the drowning and ran off together.
I am sure that the historians will stick to the official story. Because it sounds much better as you stand there, looking at the statue of Ed, to honor the memory of all of the brave Barefoot Mailmen that passed this way.
Climbing to the top of the Hillsboro Inlet Lighthouse, I can only imagine how lonely this location must have been when Ed disappeared in the 1880s. And to wonder what it was like when the second-order bivalve Fresnel lens was first lit on March 7, 1907.
Almost seventy years later the light was automated. The lighthouse keepers and the Barefoot Mailman may be gone. But the lighthouse still aids coastal navigational and is a support to the local water traffic. And the statue of old Ed is still there, reminding us of how life was in Florida more than 130 years ago.