Rum Runners Adventures by Virginia Koetzner
The Volstead Act, the 1920 enabling legislation for a nationwide ban on the sale, transport, use and manufacture of alcoholic beverages, was the outgrowth of years of crusading by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League that started as Prohibition in a few individual states. The legislation didn’t stop the demand for alcohol – the only change was the source of supply.
They called it “hooch,” “booze” and “moonshine.” Hooch and booze were the products made legally in other countries and sold by the supply ships out in the ocean. Moonshine was the home brew made in stills around the country, usually at night. Although it was illegal under the Volstead Act to buy or sell or use alcoholic beverages except for medical or religious purposes, you could make your own but only enough for your family or guests. Homeowners made wine, hard cider, beer and distilled liquor in their backyards, garages and basements. Publishing recipes to make moonshine was illegal but they got around that by labeling apple and grape juice containers with warnings not to mix it with certain ingredients or it would turn into alcohol. Making home brew was a less dangerous way to make money during the hard times of the depression. Locals had their own bottle caps and fake labels and would go to the dumps to find bottles that would be used over and over.
Early smugglers brought Canadian alcohol across the border, down the St. Lawrence and Detroit Rivers and across the Great Lakes to the US. Smuggling Canadian alcohol was the second largest industry in Michigan after the auto industry. When the Detroit River froze, smugglers switched from boats to trucks, only running into trouble when they overloaded the trucks and the ice wasn’t thick enough to support the extra weight.
With its close proximity to New York City and the Atlantic Ocean, Long Island was an ideal location for unloading and distributing illegal liquor. In the early days of Prohibition with the legal offshore limit set at three miles, you could see the supply boats anchored in the Atlantic off Montauk. The late Congressman, Perry Duryea remembered there being one basic industry in Montauk in his youth, the product of rum running. In a recorded oral history he did for the East Hampton Library, Duryea recalled the local fishermen going out at night and coming home in the morning. The men in the community always knew, he said, when a boat was coming in and would work quickly to unload it.
Prohibition was a time of great secrecy. You never knew who among your neighbors or their friends or relatives were “wets,” who were in favor of taking the controls off alcohol, or “drys,” who opposed the sale of alcohol. There were locked doors and passwords to get into the speakeasys where liquor was sold illegally. There were hiding places and trap doors leading to them. Elizabeth MacDonald, owner of Island Fish Net Supply in Sayville, remembers being shown the trap door at the old Fulton Fish Market. It led to the water over which the old market was built. When the bundles hoisted up through the trap door from the boat underneath were heavier than usual, they knew a rum run had been made. At Claudio’s Restaurant on the water in Greenport, the booze came up in the same way from the water underneath the restaurant, through a trap door behind the bar which is still there.
Off Long Island’s south shore a line of foreign registered supply boats from Great Britain, France, Italy, Holland, Cuba, Canada, Germany, the Bahamas and Norway extended from Montauk as far south as Cape May, New Jersey. These supply ships formed what has been called “Rum Row.” The contact boats that bought from the supply ships, serviced areas from Greenport and Montauk on the east end, Freeport, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Staten Island and various New Jersey locations. The supply boats – schooners, steamers and converted fishing trawlers, hung their prices on banners in their rigging. Their distance from shore was just beyond the three mile limit.
In 1924 the US negotiated a treaty with Canada and Great Britain to extend the limit from three to twelve miles further offshore, putting the supply ships in rougher water and making it more dangerous for the smaller contact boats to operate. Commonly used as contact boats were the open mahogany speedboats, such as those built by Hacker Craft and the lapstrake skiffs from New Jersey. They would make their purchase from the supply boats and leave to make their deliveries, often on beaches, as inlets and more protected areas were likely to be patrolled by the Coast Guard. The contact boats were sometimes powered by Pierce Arrow car engines and others were powered by the Liberty 500 HP aircraft engines that the government sold for $100 apiece after the war.
The small contact boats that would buy from the supply ships on Rum Row, ran the highest risk because what they were doing was illegal, transporting booze in US waters. When the Coast Guard got too close, the contact boats would use old engine oil, pour it on their hot exhaust manifolds and try to escape before the smoke screen they created disappeared.
The Black Witch, a 25’ Hacker Craft built in the early 1920s was a typical contact boat. It’s eight cylinder 150 HP Hemi Engine moved her along, fully loaded, at 32 mph. She was never caught. The booze was loaded onto the seats in cases for a quick toss overboard in case the Coast Guard got too close. The Black Witch originally had a searchlight and siren. On dark nights on Lake Ontario if a suspicious boat was spotted, Black Witch’s captain would turn on the siren and chase the boat. If it was a rum runner, they would dump the booze and the Black Witch searchlight would be turned on to find the booze and add it to their own stash.
At their Freeport Point Shipyard on the south end of the Woodcleft Canal in Freeport, brothers Fred and Mirto Scopinich built boats for the rum runners and boats for the Coast Guard. Some of the rum runner boats were small skiffs that were designed to be beached, and others, larger boats 30 to 40 feet, designed to look from the outside like pleasure boats but inside they were fitted out as the rum runners requested with cabin and bilge storage.
Fred Scopinich, boatbuilder and son of one of the founders of the Freeport Point Shipyard, remembers a time when he was a child, one night around midnight his father was awakened by intruders who pleaded for help because their boat was sinking. Mr. Scopinich headed for the Yard, saw their boat sitting far too low in the water and hauled it out for them. He went back to bed and while he was gone, the boat owners unloaded the boat. Years later it came out – the Coast Guard had been looking for their boat – it was full of booze.
In New Jersey the Kofoed Yard in Keyport built boats like the Fleur De Lis that ran rum during Prohibition days and then was converted to party boat use. To be used for fishing, her deck was raised and a wheelhouse was added but even with a full load of fishermen, she was the fastest party boat in the Wildwood-Cape May area.
One of the supply ships that was part of the Rum Line that extended to Cape May, New Jersey, was the Tomoka. Her captain, William McCoy, was perhaps the most unlikely person to become the folk hero of Prohibition days. Brought up in Philadelphia and destined to become a bricklayer apprentice and work with his father, McCoy discovered the wharves on the Delaware River. He found his way to the Philadelphia Maritime School and spent two years on the School’s ship and several years on steamers and private yachts. When his family moved to Florida, he and his brother went into business building sailboats for wealthy families and running a boat service from Jacksonville to Palm Beach. The depression ended their business.
McCoy met a well dressed stranger in a new car one day who pointed him in the direction of supplying booze that had just become illegal, even offering McCoy a job running one of his boats. McCoy thought it over and convinced his brother to sell what was left of their business and use the money to buy their own boat to run rum. McCoy went to Massachusetts to look for a suitable boat. While he was buying an affordable, serviceable boat to get started in their new venture, he saw a boat he knew he would own one day, the Arethusa. McCoy’s first trip in the new boat he bought, earned him $15,000. In three months he netted $35,000 and headed back to Massachusetts to buy Arethusa. His vessels, like all the supply ships, were registered in foreign countries. In the British registry there already was an Arethusa, so he renamed her Tomoka, but always thought of her as Arethusa. He immediately added a concealed machine gun on the deck and put a more powerful engine in her bilge. She had a carrying capacity of 5,000 cases, which meant each trip would be worth $50,000. He soon had five boats and crews of dozens of men on monthly trips. They loaded in the Bahamas and sold their booze on Rum Row. McCoy found a way to double his carrying capacity by using burlap bags called “burlocks.”
The rum that gave rum runners their name came from the Bahamas but the smart rum runners realized that more expensive booze meant higher profits. McCoy was one of the few captains who was a non-drinker, who never watered his booze and sold only top quality brands. In 1923 he was arrested.Technically, he never broke the law, but he had become a legendary figure in rum running – an honest law breaker. Because of his disregard for authority and folk hero status with the public, McCoy was an embarrassment to the government. They needed to make an example and he was it. The US government made a deal with Great Britain, under whose registry McCoy’s boat was named, and the British agreed not to interfere if they chased McCoy, so even though McCoy was beyond the territorial limit, they arrested him.
McCoy’s kindness to a customs agent sent to spy on him the previous year paid big dividends when McCoy got to Washington for his trial. The agent, Peter Sullivan, took him all over Washington to meet other federal agents and congressmen who wanted to meet McCoy and shake his hand. At the trial McCoy was sentenced to nine months jail time but was permitted to leave jail every morning as long as he returned by 9 pm. McCoy and his brother returned to the boat building business and he died in 1948 aboard the last boat he built.
After serving his time McCoy was smart enough to leave the rum running business. By the late 1920s organized crime syndicates had spread through the entire illegal liquor industry. They had their own distilleries and breweries. Their distribution outlets were protected by bribed federal agents who looked the other way. It was not a place an honest crook like McCoy could compete and he knew it.