Carrying the Mail to Cuba Contrast Between the Present Service and that of Many Years Ago. The Sun (August 5, 1886)
A fast mail service between the United States and Cuba was begun a few days ago. Mail from New York city is whirled to Jacksonville, Florida, and across the State to Tampa by rail, where it is taken on board an iron steamship and carried direct to Havanna.
This service contrasts in a striking way with that which was the sole dependence not many years ago. Men are still living in St. Augustine who received the mails for Havana in dugout canoes down the eastern Florida coast to the Keys, between the Keys and the main land to Key West, and across the sixty mile reach of open water to Havana. An old Minorcan named Bravo, who was living in St. Augustine only a few years ago, and probably is there still, used to spin exciting yarns of the experiences only a few years ago, and probably is there still, used to spin exciting yarns of the experiences of these venturesome mail carriers. Their canoes were eighteen or twenty feet long and as wide as could be hewn from a good-sized cypress log. They were sharp at both ends, and were steered with a paddle held under the skipper's arm and pressed against a stern post. A mast to which it was laced a spritz ail, was stepped in the forward thwart. There were two men in the crew, and they were provided with blankets, a few cooking utensils a supply of provisions, and a keg of water. If the weather was fairly favorable they took on board the mail bags at St. Augustine, to which town they had come by schooner from northern ports, went boldly out over the St. Augustine bar and turned the prows of their rude craft southward a little way outside the breakers. They cruised down to Mosquito Inlet, opposite New Smyrna. If in the course of the run the wind blew too fresh from an easterly direction, they turned the boat's nose toward the beach, rode through the surf on one of the rollers, sprang out and hauled the canoe up the beach and away from the reach of the sea. When the sea subsided---sometimes not until after many days of waiting in camp among the sand dunes--the boat was launched through the surf and the United States mails resumed their southward journey. At Mosquito Inlet in rough weather the inside passage was taken, thus avoiding the dangerous bit of sailing around the point of Cape Canaveral. The route was down the Hillsborough River, between Mangrove Islands to either the Banana River or Indian River Lagoon, down the river and through the Narrows to Jupiter Inlet, and then out to sea and down the coast to the inlet to Key Biscayne Bay. Thence there was an inside route with safe sailing among the keys to Key West. There the intrepid mail carriers replenished their supplies. If the weather was favorable they headed their dugout for Havana, beyond the southern horizon, and sixty miles away. If the sea was rough, or the winds unfavorable, they lay in port till they deemed it safe to start. It was a daring bit of sailing. When half way across they could not see within fifteen miles of land in either direction. Their canoes were not decked over, but they were buoyant, and if they shipped a sea and filled they still floated.
Old man Bravo says that during the years in which the mails were thus carried, the intrepid skippers of the mail canoes never met with a serious mishap.