When the United States was in the grip of Prohibition, many Maritimers laid down their fishing rods and took up the profitable but risky business of rum running to quench American thirsts.
BY HUGO PARADIS, text and photographs courtesy of Canadian Tourism Commission
- Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia
A fisherman's life isn't always easy, nor does it always pay very well. But experience on the high seas can sometimes prove useful in other ways, say, for smuggling liquor.
During American Prohibition in the early 1900s, many Atlantic Canada fishermen supported their families by running liquor to the U.S. northeast coast, where people were painfully parched due to the Volstead Act, the American law prohibiting the consumption, sale and manufacture of alcoholic beverages.
“Americans had two choices in the 1920s,” says Jean-Pierre Andrieux, author of Prohibition and St. Pierre: When Distillers and Rum Runners Made France's Colony Off Newfoundland a Principal Centre for the Liquor Trade. “They could drink bathtub gin, which could make you go blind, or they could turn to their northern neighbours.”
Canada-wide, Prohibition lasted only two years, from 1917 to 1919, but the temperance movement bracketing that period was more enduring. Some provinces, like Prince Edward Island, were entirely “dry” by the late 19th century. Quebec, on the other hand, was fiercely opposed to any such measures. At one point during American Prohibition, la Belle Province was the only place in Canada where alcohol was not banned.
But even when alcohol consumption was outlawed in a province, it was often still legal to make it for military or medical purposes or for export. And overnight, ordinary fishermen discovered they had a talent for “international trade,” braving storms to get their liquor cargos to port, using visual navigation on ink-black nights to evade the Coast Guard, risking their very lives in order to make a better living.
Prior to Prohibition, a segment of Canadian mariners had been involved in the entirely legal shipping of alcohol between the Caribbean Islands and Canada. But as demand grew, other seamen of every ilk quickly joined the act, particularly after Canadian laws on exporting alcohol began to be more strictly enforced.
An illicit trade developed along the Canada-U.S. border early on in Prohibition. Some smugglers were especially drawn to the part of the border that runs through the Great Lakes region between Ontario and the United States, where they came up with ingenious ways to dodge the Coast Guard.
“In Windsor, for example,” Andrieux notes, “the Hiram Walker distillery could load as many as 25 cases of Canadian Club whisky onto small rowboats that were officially bound for Cuba, which is a bit far for a rowboat to travel! And sure enough, an hour later the cargo would be in Detroit.”
When U.S. authorities realized the scale of the transborder trafficking, it was the last straw. The United States demanded Canada change its laws, or face economic reprisals.
Canada's response was immediate. It decreed that only ocean-going vessels would be allowed to transport alcohol out of Canada and that payments to distilleries would be held back until written proof was received that cargos had been offloaded in ports exempt from Prohibition laws.
From then on, Canadian vessels permitted to depart with cargos of alcohol were allowed to sail only for the Bahamas, Bermuda, Honduras, Belize or St-Pierre-Miquelon, the small French islands located just offshore from Newfoundland.
At the time, however, St-Pierre-Miquelon could not legally import spirits from foreign countries. And while the finest French alcoholic products could theoretically be shipped to the islands, Americans much preferred bourbon and rye, whiskies that were easy to distil in Canada.
“This is when an American name Bill McCoy entered the scene,” Andrieux recalls. “He was a bootlegger, neither a Mafioso nor a lowlife, who always provided his customers with the very best of what was available. Whence the expression ‘the real McCoy,’ still meant the crème de la crème.”
One day when his schooner was having problems, McCoy put in at Halifax, where he encountered a French wine merchant named Folquet. Folquet suggested McCoy have his damaged vessel repaired in St-Pierre-Miquelon and offered to supply McCoy with a variety of alcohol.
Together, McCoy and Folquet dangled before St-Pierre residents the prospect of a lucrative liquor trade with the United States, and pressure was exerted on Paris to soften the trade laws. As a result, the laws were changed in 1922. To protect producers in Martinique and Guadeloupe, rum from British Guyana was still barred from import to St-Pierre-Miquelon. But all other spirits could freely enter the archipelago and then depart for the United States via Fire Island off New York.
So St-Pierre-Miquelon became a hub of liquor smuggling for the east coast of North America and Canada became one of the biggest producers of spirits in the world. Companies like Hiram Walker, BC Distilleries and Seagram saw their profits skyrocket. And a legion of Canadian mariners were baptized rum runners - a term that sometimes also applied to their vessels.
Meanwhile the bootlegging business proved a boon for Nova Scotia shipbuilders. Shipyards from Halifax to Baie Sainte-Marie to Lunenburg began turning out vessels specially designed for smuggling. Before long Nova Scotia's south coast became known as Rum Row.
- Lunenburg, Nova Scotia
At the height of the smuggling, some 350,000 cases of spirits passed through the St-Pierre islands every month. Most of the liquor was produced in Quebec and Ontario, while the deals were made in Montreal, where all the big distilleries were located and where the Mafia would place orders.
At first the rum runners used schooners, says Andrieux, but then gradually they began to acquire old U.S. Navy submarine chasers. Sub chasers were grey, low to the water and had no masts, so they were very difficult to spot. Cargos would be transferred far out at sea, in international waters. The sub chasers operated only on cloudy or moonless nights. Fortunately for the rum runners, radar hadn't yet been invented.
“The only thing that could give them away was the noise of the wooden crates being transferred between vessels,” Andrieux notes. “Depending on the wind, the Coast Guard could pinpoint their location and then detain them as soon as they re-entered territorial waters.”
“At that point Al Capone himself came up with the solution to the problem while on a visit to St-Pierre-Miquelon. Instead of wooden crates, he hit upon the idea of wrapping each bottle in straw and then putting the bottles in burlap bags.” After that, silence reigned.
The new packing system meant that some 350,000 wooden crates, emptied of their bottles, were abandoned on the shores of St-Pierre-Miquelon every month. The crates were torn apart and used for firewood, but they also served another purpose. “All the houses constructed in St-Pierre in the 1920s were made entirely with wood from whisky crates,” Andrieux says.
In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt came to power on the strength of his promise to end Prohibition. True to his word, after 13 dry years temperance gave way to indulgence in 1933.
Today there are few traces left in Canada of the rum runners. True, a small section of the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic in Lunenburg is devoted to them, and Andrieux displays a collection of rum-running artifacts at the Hôtel Robert in St-Pierre-Miquelon.
But overall these remarkable seafarers have largely been forgotten. It's almost as if history drank so much during that period, it now has only the haziest memory of what occurred …
IF YOU GO
For more information on this or other Canadian destinations (but not St-Pierre-Miquelon!), visit the Canadian Tourism Commission's website at travelcanada.ca.
Lunenburg is about 100 kilometres from Halifax.
- By air: Air Canada (1-888-247-2262 or www.aircanada.ca), Air Canada Jazz (1-888-247-2262 or www.flyjazz.ca), Air Canada Tango (1-888-247-2262 or www.flytango.ca), Jetsgo (1-866-440-0441 or www.jetsgo.net), CanJet (1-800-809-7777 or www.canjet.ca) and WestJet (1-888-937-8538 or www.westjet.com) serve Halifax from many Canadian cities.
- By land: Via Rail (1-888-842-7245 or www.viarail.ca), and Greyhound (1-800-661-8747 or www.greyhound.ca), serve Nova Scotia from elsewhere in Canada.
- By sea: Ferries run between Argentia or Port-aux-Basques, NL, and North Sydney, N.S. (1-800-341-7981 or www.marine-atlantic.ca), as well as between Wood Islands, P.E.I., and Caribou, N.S., and between Saint John, N.B., and Digby, N.S. (1-888-249-7245 or www.nfl-bay.com).
- Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic: 68 Bluenose Drive, Lunenburg; (902) 634-4794 or www.fisheries.museum.gov.ns.ca
- Town of Lunenburg: 1-888-615-8305 or www.town.lunenburg.ns.ca
- Nova Scotia Department of Tourism, Culture and Heritage: 1-800-565-0000 or www.novascotia.com
Hugo Paradis is a Montreal-based freelance journalist. He's been travelling around Quebec since childhood and is always on the lookout for the new and the offbeat. His interests include architecture, culture, outdoor activities, history, fine dining and winter sports.