Prohibition conjures up images of the Great Gatsby, Flappers the Charleston and the Volstead act. The roaring twenties was a time when adults seemed to abandon all the rules their parents held so dear. The sky was the limit. Speake
asies, where bootleg liquor was served in coffee cups, were the rage and bathtub gin was the drink of choice. This despite that it was illegal which, probably made it more exciting
Prohibition recalls high powered cars with built-in tanks filled will illegal booze racing through the night on backcountry roads pursued by police or revenue agents. That scene was very much a part of the era. Then there were the boats. Another part of the story, that took place all along the coastline and especially around the Chesapeake Bay, is the use of boats of all kinds to run the rum. Rum-runners roamed the waters up and down the east coast.
The many natural creeks and rivers of the Chesapeake Bay make it ideal for smuggling. It worked well for Confederates blockade runners evading the Union gunboats and it worked even better for moonshiners. In his book, Chesapeake Rum-Runners of the Roaring Twenties, Eric Mill’s reports there were illegal moonshiners working close to the creeks and rivers which line the shores of the bay. Easy access to fishing boats, both power and sail, made the allure of easy money running booze all the more attractive. For a hard-working waterman, the potential cash return for a boat hold full of booze far exceeded the return of a day’s catch.
Oystermen were known to hide mason jars of white lighting in a bushel basket of raw oysters. One waterman/ rum-runner confided he never ran gin because it was so cheap for people to make at home, it didn’t pay. Moonshine was the cargo of choice. All sorts of boats from sailing yachts, to fishing boats of every description, were used on the bay to transport moonshine from stills hidden on farms, in the woods and even in homes. Many watermen harvested oysters by day and transported whiskey by night.
The revenue agents, charged with tracking down those whiskey runs, were overwhelmed as were the U.S. Coast Guard. Some local police had the attitude the Volstead Act was a Federal law that needed to be enforced by the feds and not their concern to enforce. Besides, they too enjoyed moonshine and were not opposed to a sip or two by way of research.
Word quickly spread of the profits to be made in bootlegging. Veteran moonshiners knew that using steel tanks would cause the moonshine to become poisonous. Because they drank much of it themselves, they took pride in turning out a quality product. Those that got into it to make a quick buck ignored the science and made poor quality moonshine that, in some cases, caused people to die. In many cases, it was determined that the quick buck bootleggers had used denatured alcohol which caused blindness and even death.
Consumers learned of the dangers of poisoned bootleg booze and began to demand the best-bonded whiskey. Their demands were accommodated by syndicates of what turned out, in some cases, to be prominent people. By far the most famous was the steam yacht Istar also known as the “queen of the rum-runners.” Istar had a big gun mounted on her aft deck which she was unlikely to fire knowing the US Coast Guard has been ordered to sink her if she fires a single round. She was what amounts to being the “flagship of the rum fleet” ironically her cargo was not rum, but thirty-three thousand cases of Scotch Whiskey from Glasgow, Scotland. Her million-dollar cargo of the best quality Scotch Whiskey was destined for the drinking appetites of tipplers in Virginia and buyers from across the Chesapeake Bay.
Ironically, her Captain John Skinner kept the Istar at sea in Rum Row. The section known as Rum Row was an area just beyond the then, three-mile limit of the territorial waters of the United States at that time. It was a place where the U.S. Coast Guard could not legally enforce the laws of the United States, namely the Volstead Act. There the Istar, along with fast ships from Canada, England, France, Bermuda, the Bahamas, Cuba and other ports in the United States would wait for buyers to race out from hidden spots in the bay and along the coast to buy quality whiskey.
Cutty Sark Whiskey presently markets a prohibition edition whiskey which pays homage to Captain Willman McCoy who smuggled Cutty Sark Whiskey into the US during prohibition. The company says, his reputation for dealing with unadulterated liquor (at a time, many bootleggers mixed their spirits with other liquids in order to increase yield), gave rise to Cutty Sark being referred to as the “Real McCoy.’
The buyers arrived at Rum-Row in all sorts of vessels usually fast and usually by night. Once inside the territorial waters of the US, these rumrunners could be boarded and the cargoes seized. If they resisted they could be fired on by U.S. Coast Guard Cutters like the famous Apache. If they did not heave to they could be blasted out of the water. Often, the rum-runner could outrun the cutters. In several cases, the rum-runners ran their boats aground on beaches and escaped by jumping off their boats and running to the woods. Ironically, many of the confiscated boats of all description were put into service by the U.S. Coast Guard to catch rum-runners.
When U. S. Coast Guard surveillance of small vessels rendezvousing with ships like the Istar ramped up, the rum-runners came up with another plan. They found another way to get into the bay without going past the waiting Coast Guard vessels. Their fast boats loaded with whiskey, threaded through Currituck Sound then made their way up the Chesapeake and Albemarle Canal to the Elizabeth River and then into the Chesapeake Bay. Once clear of the Coast Guard patrols expecting them to enter through Cape Charles, they made stops on the way and often went right on up the Potomac River to thirsty buyers in Washington, DC. The Washington Post reported that Washington, D.C. bootleggers where charging from $85 to $120.00 a case for whiskey from the Istar.
Millions of dollars were being made by the organizers of the smuggling operations optimized by Istar. The people who organized the operations of black ships like the Istar held prestigious positions even as high as members of the British Parliament. Eventually, the mystery man behind Istar and the rum-running syndicate was discovered. He was Sir Broderick Cecil Denham Arkwright Hartwell, Fourth baronet – late a captain in the Leicestershire Regiment, a highly decorated veteran of the Boer War and the World War
The rum-running was not without its risks. Aside from the ever-present threat from the U.S. Coast Guard, there were the perils of operating at sea, in the dark and often in the fog. In one much heralded case the 50-ton Sloop Glen Beulah was waiting with her cargo of whiskey off the Virginia Cape in a fog laden darkness. Aboard, were eighteen hundred cases of Lewis Hunter rye whiskey. In the fog, a mystery ship rammed her and sent her to the bottom. Luckily for the crew of the Glen Beulah, who had escaped in their pajamas in a rowboat with just one oar, they were rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Yamacraw.
The crew was arrested and remanded to the Norfolk City jail. The Captain claimed that his ship was not a rum-runner. And, that she had stopped at the entrance to Chesapeake for engine repairs. The Coast Guard claimed she was anchored ten miles southeast of the Cape Charles lighthouse when she was sunk. The Captain of the Glen Beulah claimed his ship was rammed by the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Mascoutin which he stated had two masts. In fact, the Mascoutin had only one mast.
Writer Eric Mills reports the British steamship Rowan Park was off Diamond Shoals near the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay when she was hailed by a schooner showing a distress signal. The Rowan Park went to the aid of the schooner which her captain identified as the Leader. He claimed she had lost her rudder and was trying to maneuver by sail alone. The Captain of the steamer invited the crew of the stricken vessel aboard. Once the Coast Guard was notified, the Rowan Park went on her way. The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Manning which was on patrol found the vessel had disappeared from the area. When the Manning arrived on the scene where the stricken vessel had been reported to be, the vessel was not there. As the U. S. Coast Guard headed out, the rum-running schooner headed in. Her name was not Leader, but rather Julito. There was, in fact, no problem with her rudder. Two coast guard cutters gave chase as the Julito headed through the Virginia Capes then up the Chesapeake Bay. She made it to the Poquoson River before the U.S. Coast Guard caught up. A U. S. Coast Guard boarding party found food cooking in the galley and a dog running around the deck, but not a soul onboard. The entire crew had abandoned ship.
The men who were Chesapeake Bay rum-runners used all sorts of deceits to get the illegal whiskey past the revenue cutters and the Coast Guard. They were seasoned watermen who knew the bay from years of harvesting oysters, crab and fish of every description. The high stakes game of cat and mouse between rum-runners and the law continued for as long as the Volstead Act remained in effect.
The passage of the 21st Amendment marked the end of Prohibition in 1933. And the end of the lucrative rum-runners. Notorious gangster Al Capone, who knew an awful lot about prohibition said:” Prohibition has made nothing but trouble.” The irony of the rum-runner of the Chesapeake Bay is that many remained anonymous. When prohibition ended, their boats were put back in service as watermen. Watermen’s boat holds that had held cases of illegal whiskey, once again held oysters and mackerel. The stories were remembered and became legends.
The truth is they did not speak to strangers of what they did in those days. They survived the gold age of rum runners. Some bought new boats. Some built new homes. Some were actually sent to prison.
Oh, we don’t give a damn for our old Uncle Sam
Way-o, whiskey and gin!
Lend us a hand when we stand into land
Just give us time to run the rum in.
“The Smugglers’ Chanty”