NIAGARA DISCOVERIES: 'Rum running' along Lake Ontario

COURTESY NIAGARA HISTORY CENTERThis map from the 1908 Niagara County Atlas shows Wintergreen Island in Wilson Harbor, a favorite spot for rum runners to unload their cargo.


As previously mentioned in Niagara Discoveries, sometimes readers make suggestions for articles. Recently, two people expressed interest in knowing more about “rum running” activity in Niagara County during Prohibition.

The 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was proposed by Congress in 1917 and was sent to the states for ratification. When the amendment was approved by three-fourths of the states in January 1919, it went into effect on Jan. 17, 1920. The amendment made the production, transportation and sale of intoxicating liquor illegal but it did not actually prohibit the consumption of alcohol, thus making the law very difficult to enforce.

A few months before the amendment went into effect, another law was passed in Congress. The Volstead Act declared that not only liquor, but also wine and beer, would be prohibited under the amendment. This prohibition of alcohol, rather than eliminating the consumption of “intoxicating spirits,” actually created underground business opportunities based on the manufacture, smuggling and sale of liquor.

“Speakeasies,” where you could purchase and consume alcoholic beverages, proliferated, particularly in the larger cities. Most of them had the cover of a respectable establishment, such as restaurant or nightclub, but also had a separate area where liquor was served. The “beverages” for these speakeasies had to be made and transported from somewhere. Although some places used “bootleg liquor,” “bathtub gin” and even homemade “moonshine,” many preferred to obtain their alcohol from a more legitimate source and that was often in Canada.

Being so close to the Canadian border (one mile across the river and about 35 across the lake), Niagara County naturally became a hot bed of the smuggling activity more commonly called “rum running.” Beginning almost immediately after the 18th Amendment went into effect, enterprising men on both sides of the border saw this as a way to make a profit off the new law. Some were individuals out to make a fast buck, but more often they were part of a much larger operation coordinated by an organized crime syndicate.

Although many places along the Niagara River and Lake Ontario were used as drop-off points, the “hot spots” became Wilson and Olcott, both of which had inlets along the shoreline where boats could slip in and out undetected but were close enough to roads that the contraband could be easily transported over land. The lower Niagara River was also used but due to the swift current, its close proximity to the Coast Guard station in Youngstown and the fact that it could be more easily monitored from both sides, it was a more risky place to cross.

Although “rum runners” used sleek, fast boats (what today are called cigarette boats), which were often difficult to track, they did not escape the scrutiny of the Coast Guard and customs agents. One area in particular that caught their attention was the lake shore on either side of Wilson Harbor. Reports had been received that a “large number of cargoes of liquor have cleared from Canadian ports for Wilson, NY” even though “Wilson was not a legal port of entry.”

When officials tried questioning some of the residents of the town and village of Wilson, they found that people were “surprised” to learn that “rum running” was taking place in their little community. The residents declared, “Wilson has lived a placid existence that belies any great amount of rum running activity.” If there had been anything going on in the vicinity “the population was not aware of it.”

By late 1927, the U.S. government had beefed up both the Coast Guard and the customs border patrol on Lake Ontario from Youngstown to Charlotte (near Rochester). After the government crackdown on smugglers in the Detroit area had essentially put them out of business, many of them moved their operation to the western end of Lake Ontario. One advantage here was that the lake does not freeze over and runs could be made in the winter under cover of darkness.

One such run ended in tragedy in the early morning hours of Nov. 29, 1928. Two men, one from Lewiston, one from Niagara Falls, had transported 200 cases of Canadian ale from Niagara-on-the-Lake to an unknown destination. Upon their return, they were detected by the Coast Guard and ordered to stop. Instead, they turned around and aimed their boat in the direction of the Coast Guard vessel. The Coast Guard was able to maneuver their boat out of the way and fire upon the smuggler’s boat, killing one of the men and injuring the other.

This incident, however, did not stop the “rum running” and the cat and mouse chase between the Coast Guard and the liquor smugglers continued until the passage of the 21st Amendment, which repealed the 18th Amendment, on Dec. 5, 1933, thus ending Prohibition.

Ann Marie Linnabery is the assistant director of the History Center of Niagara.