From Closing Time. Published by Douglas & McIntyre in 2014. Daniel Francis is an award-winning author. He has written two dozen books, principally about Canadian history.
While rum-runners on the Pacific Coast worked directly from Canada, on the Atlantic side of the continent they used convenient foreign ports where alcohol could be received for transshipment into the US. The Bahamas, Cuba, British Honduras (Belize) and Bermuda all served as conduits for booze from Britain and Canada. Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas, boomed in the early years of prohibition. Daniel Okrent points out that in the two years before America went dry, 914 gallons of Scotch entered the Bahamas; by 1922 that amount had jumped to 386,000 gallons. Another historian estimates that as much as ten million quarts of liquor passed through Nassau in a year. Of course, so much liquor was not meant for Bahamians. As quickly as it could be transferred to the rum-running vessels it was on its way again, up the coast to “Rum Row,” the off-shore marketplace between Boston and Atlantic City.
Rum Row was said to be the invention of a former merchant mariner named Bill McCoy. In 1921 McCoy acquired a 90-foot (27.4-metre) fishing schooner, loaded it with 1,500 cases of whisky he acquired in Nassau and sailed to the coast of Georgia where he sold the entire shipment. A few weeks later McCoy returned with another load, this time to the vicinity of New York where he waited offshore for word to spread among the bootleggers that he had arrived and was open for business. So successful was this venture that he upgraded to a larger vessel, the 114-foot (34.5-metre), two-masted schooner Tomoka, capable of handling 5,000 cases at a time. McCoy is credited with another invention adopted by the rum-running fleet: the “burlock.” Smugglers commonly removed bottles of alcohol from their wooden crates and repacked them in burlap sacks for ease of handling. McCoy’s innovation was to take six bottles, surround them in a protective jacket of straw in the shape of a pyramid, then wrap the whole package tightly in burlap. The result, known also as a “sack,” made economical use of stowage space and could be handed over the gunwales with ease.
At this time the Coast Guard was not yet a serious impediment to business and the atmosphere on Rum Row was relaxed and friendly with customers coming out in all manner of boats to make their purchases. Boaters out for a day cruise might arrive just to buy a bottle or two for personal consumption and there were reports of rum vessels hanging price lists over the side like vegetable vendors at an open-air market. One enterprising yacht owner hired a band, put some waiters in uniform and established a floating speakeasy just beyond the three-mile limit. Eventually this maritime shopping mall evolved into a more permanent fleet of large vessels, floating warehouses that remained off the coast more or less permanently, careful to stay beyond the three-mile territorial limit, while smaller vessels re-supplied them from Nassau and the other ports.
In 1922 another seaport opened to the rum-running trade. The tiny island of Saint-Pierre and its neighbour Miquelon, anchored in the North Atlantic just south of Newfoundland, had been claimed for France in 1536 by the explorer Jacques Cartier. Over the years, ownership of the sparsely populated islands had bounced back and forth between France and Britain as the spoils of their colonial wars until finally the Treaty of Paris in 1814 left them in French hands for good. Following World War I the government in Paris had banned the importation of alcohol into all its overseas possessions, including Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, as a way of preserving foreign exchange, but in April 1922 Paris lifted the ban and the islands, located so conveniently close to the Eastern Seaboard, were set to become the liquor entrepôt of the North Atlantic.
Once again it is Bill McCoy who gets credit for recognizing the extra-legal possibilities of Saint-Pierre. As the story goes, in the spring of 1922 his vessel Tomoka, dodging the authorities and in need of repairs, was waiting off Halifax for permission to enter the harbour. Because the schooner had on board a shipment of liquor from Nassau, permission was denied. A frustrated McCoy, who had come to Halifax to meet his vessel, fell into conversation with a merchant from Saint-Pierre named Folquet who was staying at the same hotel. When Folquet learned of the rum-runner’s predicament he offered not only to fix the boat but to act as McCoy’s agent on Saint-Pierre, an island the American did not even know existed. Once McCoy paid his first visit, he recognized immediately that he’d found a perfect place to do business. The writer Damon Runyon called Saint-Pierre “a little squirt of a burg.” Prior to prohibition it served mainly as a port of call for the French fishing fleet. Its population of fewer than four thousand inhabitants was in decline as the exodus that had begun during the war continued for lack of economic opportunities. In this situation the rum-runners were welcome when they came offering jobs, incomes and adventure to a population hungry for all three. It was not long before Saint-Pierre was challenging the southern ports for pre-eminence in the Eastern Seaboard liquor business. (The Bahamas and Havana remained the main suppliers to Florida and the Gulf of Mexico.)
Within a year the Saint-Pierre waterfront was transformed into a bustling metropolis with cargoes of Scotch arriving from Scotland, Irish whiskey from Ireland, champagne from France, rum from Demerara, and rye and bourbon from Canada. While vessels waited to take on a load their crews took advantage of the several bars on shore to drink and gamble. The demand for warehouse space soon outstripped the supply and every available building on the island was commandeered for storage. So many jobs were available loading and unloading the crates of liquor and working on the launches that carried the booze down to Rum Row that the locals abandoned the fishery altogether. Eventually the fish-packing plant had to close; it became a liquor storehouse instead. In 1923 more than a thousand vessels left Saint-Pierre for Rum Row carrying six million bottles of hooch.
Most of the large liquor dealers from Canada established warehouses in Saint-Pierre. Consolidated Exporters, for example, represented United Distillers, a prominent Vancouver distillery. Consolidated Traders did business for the Montreal liquor giant Canadian Industrial Alcohol Ltd., owner of Corby’s. Another agency, the Great West Wine Company, represented the Reifel interests in Saint-Pierre. The Bronfmans had their own subsidiary as well, the Northern Export Company, which grew to become the largest trader on the island; at one point there were seventy people working at the Northern Export warehouse and office in Saint-Pierre. As time went on, a few Canadian distillers came to handle most of the liquor that moved in and out of the island port. One reason that the liquor merchants appreciated Saint-Pierre was that the French imposed only a four-cent-per-bottle tax, less than fifty cents per case, much lower than the six dollars per case exporters had to pay in the Bahamas. For Canadian dealers, Saint-Pierre also was convenient because they did not have to go through the charade of finagling the customs documents. Shippers from Canada, such as the Bronfmans, Gooderham & Worts and Hiram Walker, were required to put up a bond equal to double the cash value of a shipment, refundable when proof was provided that the shipment had reached its declared destination of Cuba, Nassau, or wherever. The easiest way of getting around this requirement was to send the paperwork to an agent in the destination port who had been bribed to confirm that, yes, the shipment had arrived. When the signed documents arrived back in Canada the shipper got the bond payment back and the liquor went on its way into the US pipeline. Now Canadian shipments could simply be exported to nearby Saint-Pierre, receive all the legitimate signatures and customs stamps that freed up the deposits, and be rerouted down to Rum Row.