The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.
By Herbert W. Dosey
The era of national prohibition during the “roaring twenties” was marked by a conflict between idealistic legislation and realistic desires. Since the fulfillment of these desires was profitable, a brisk traffic in illicit spirits flowed across our borders.
Atlantic fishing schooners abandoned fishing for the more profitable rum trade from the Bahamas. Cargoes of whiskey, consigned to Bermuda and Havana from Canadian lake ports, were dumped on our beaches. Since the Great Lakes and their connecting waters bore a considerable portion of this trade, the following true narrative of an event in an outstanding decade in lakes history is set down as it was told by one who participated in it.
“Bones” Lanigan was a good engineer and a soldier of fortune so I was hardly surprised when he told me about his part in a bit of rum smuggling across Lake Erie in the Twenties. We were lounging in Hutters’ old place and sipping our beer when the subject came up.
“Herb,” he said as his gaze wandered out of the window and swept the harbor below, “did you ever know Captain Redlen – George Redlen? Well, anyway, he looked up my brother Roy, who cooks on the Lakes, and learned of my whereabouts. We met by appointment a few days later and he unfolded his plan. There was money to be made in the whiskey trade and he had ‘connections.’ Canadian whiskey was selling for around $15.00 a case. Truces, fees and the go-betweens’ cut brought it to $40.00 per case, but the Ohio market offered between $100.00 & $200.00 per case so an attractive margin was assured.
“Redlen had gone to Canada – to a distillery many miles inland – and had been promptly referred to a Mr. Barrows who frequented a certain club in the same town. Mr. Barrows was mildly interested and in an impersonal way he intimated that a cargo would be available several days after a cash advance payment in full with no receipt. This seemed a little risky but further inquiry developed the fact that Barrows’ integrity was unassailable. With this information Redlen came home and teamed up with a promoter named Kassley who was going to dispose of the stuff on this side. We held several meetings at Kassley’s house and worked out the plans down to the last detail.
“The owner of the old Neptune offered her for a reasonable cut and because she was just the type for the run we promptly accepted. To thwart spotters we painted the name Alcona on the other side of the name boards which would conceal our true identity by merely turning them over on the trip across. We agreed to date all telegrams 24 hours in advance of an event so that if we wired Kassley that shipment would go forward on the 14th it actually meant the 15th. Since the Coast Guard had such a disconcerting way of following rum runners into harbors and popping tracer bullets at them we decided to unload into a small boat along the beach. Kassley rented a cottage on the beach west of Fairport and a big flat bottomed row boat for lightening cargo.
“Since we didn’t dare show any lights it was up to Kassley to be alert to our arrival. And to guide us to the cottage it was arranged to have a red lantern in a box at the waters’ edge. Although it was quite improbable, we were mindful of the possibility of strangers blundering along the beach, in which case a pile of crumpled newspapers would be ignited. Such a beach fire would arouse no suspicion but it would warn us to remain away for two hours. If another beach fire flared up at the end of the two hours it was understood that we were to remain “hove to” over the horizon until the following night. And to top it all off Kassley had a big German shepherd dog to warn him of approaching strangers. However, it was hardly likely that anybody would be strolling along that remote section of coast on an April night. As I said, the cottage was hard by, up a short path through a thicket. Once in the shack it was a simple matter to load eight or ten cases into the auto for delivery to waiting customers. And better off they would be for drinking good import instead of the bottled creosote of the domestic bootleggers.
“We departed for Port Stanley on a clear, calm April night and moored to the west bank of Kettle Creek shortly before noon of the following day. Redlen reported in to old man Jackson at the Custom House and that same afternoon he boarded an interurban car for London and points north. He told me that he would be gone for a day or two so I just settled down for a couple of days of loafing and tinkering.
“Our ship was a 52-foot heavy cruiser and although we pretended to be on legitimate business we weren’t fooling anybody. They knew us for what we were and asked no questions. Redlen was gone for five days and during his absence my growing acquaintance with the guys along the docks produced a lot of useful information. One fellow hinted that a load of furs was available for export at, ‘an attractive freight rate.’ Others knew of some orientals with the wanderlust -or did we want a load of whiskey? I took all this in and stuck to my story -I was the engineer aboard and the captain was ashore on ships’ business.
“When Redlen returned he had quite a story to tell. The province of Ontario was dry, but it seems that some king way back in history had granted distilling charters which were to remain in force for several hundred years, and were beyond the powers of the prohibitionists to rescind. Since Ontario was dry, shipments from the distillery could be released for export only and every precaution was taken to prevent diversion to local bootleggers. There was some hitch about old Jackson so we sailed twenty miles east to Burwell where, according to Redlen, we would have better cooperation. Later I learned that Barrows had suggested the shift. Redlen went away again and when I next saw him he was coming down the hill on the dirt road with five other fellows in an open touring car. Behind them came a big heavily loaded truck and right behind that came another touring car full of guys that I learned later were armed guards. A few loads had been hijacked but that nuisance had been snuffed out in a hurry. We formed a chain gang and passed the whiskey cases along from truck to deck in a steady flow.
“I can still see the poor customs officer crouching at the hatch to check off the cases as they were passed to waiting hands below. He had about seven forms to process for each case and those happy-go-lucky guards were all tallying out of unison to confuse him. One would be counting 17-18-19 while another would call 22-23-24 and another 20-21-22. It was all a big lark to that devil-may-care lot, but they were fine fellows all. How those export documents were ever processed I’ll never know – if they ever were. Since the U. S. was also dry the two governments had entered into some sort of a mutual agreement concerning the ‘noble experiment’ and were not issuing clearances from one side to the other – so we cleared for Havana.
“As a final gesture Barrows asked Redlen to pick a random case for inspection. One was opened, found to contain good whiskey and after hand shakes all around we were ready to run the blockade. The sun was high as our ten knot ship cleared the piers and swung her nose toward Fairport and our rendezvous with Kassley.
“During the voyage across we unscrewed the name boards from the bows and the stern transom -turned them over and re-fastened them. The old Neptune was herself again and we chuckled at the thought of possible reports on one Alcona having loaded spirits at Burwell. We also covered the engine room ports and reduced the binnacle light to a faint glow. The sun was low in the western sky as we raised the smokestacks over the horizon at Fairport, so we hove to until dark for our final dash through patrolled waters to the little red lantern on the beach.
“We had our anxious moments too, believe me. Many questions passed through our minds as we lazily tossed on the quiet, glassy swells twelve miles off shore. How would the lantern show up? Suppose Kassley tired of waiting and had abandoned the whole project? What if a patrol boat came along? If Kassley failed us where could we sail with a cargo of contraband? Return to a Canadian port was illegal and would have placed us under suspicion of conspiring with Ontario bootleggers. And many there were who would have cheered us at the gibbet.
“Due to our impatience it seemed as if night would never come and even after the sun had slid under the horizon there was a glow in the clear sky which lasted until total darkness enshrouded us about ten o’clock. Under bare steerageway we stealthily stood in to the coast with a bearing on Fairport light with its mocking flash at our shipload of contraband. As we gradually closed with the coast the off-shore breeze had set in to polish the last ripple off the surface of the lake.
“With straining eyes we scanned the loom of the land for the red light which, being screened by a box, would be visible only when we were exactly abreast and bearing about S.S.E.
“And then -the light -or was it? A red glow showed four points on the port bow. By noting the time required to bring it abeam we had established our distance from shore. By guessing our speed at five knots Redlen hastily figured we were a half mile out, which was too far, so we stood in on the lead until we got two fathoms. But the baffling part of it was, why the light should be visible from down the coast when it was supposed to be in a box with the open side seaward. And it should have been a mile further west. Suddenly it flared up. But why? Kassley could never see nor hear us because by now the night was darker than the inside of a black cat, our exhaust was under water and at reduced speed our stern was breaking water silently.
“Whoever said ‘the way of the transgressor is hard’ knew something about the rum trade, because another red light showed up about a half mile west of the first one to add to our confusion. At this point Redlen headed in until the lead showed one fathom, which was a bit close for our five foot draft. Knowing how sound travels over water we spoke in muffled tones about lowering a boat for reconnaissance when Redlen, peering through binoculars, made the startling discovery that the lights we were watching were the dying embers of abandoned beach fires. So, with the lead going we continued westward and had gone hardly another mile when suddenly there burst upon our vision a beautiful red glow almost abeam. Good old Kassley hadn’t failed us. We backed just enough to get the way off and when the lead line showed we were stopped we quietly lowered the light anchor.
“This latter action was contrary to our better judgment, in case of the need for a hasty departure, but the rope could be cut with one slash so we took the chance. A moment later the muffled dip of oars reached us and the next instant the dark outline of a large, black, flat bottomed row boat emerged from the Stygian blackness. Redlen muttered something about a pass word as we stood at the rail peering down and the rower replied, ‘Yelssak,’ which I recognized as Kassley spelled backward. Redlen replied ‘Nelder’ and identifications being in order we proceeded to discharge 100 cases of well stowed whiskey. These were wood cases, burlap wrappings not having been devised yet, and many were the slivers we got that night. The skiff could only carry ten cases so Kassley made ten trips to the beach where some crony of his helped get the stuff ashore. Kassley wasn’t much of an oarsman but he learned a lot before that night was over.
“When the last case had been lowered over the side we breathed a grateful sigh of relief, weighed anchor and headed for Cleveland where we were promptly boarded by the law. The wood splinters which littered the afterhold intrigued them immensely but we just couldn’t think how they got there unless perhaps one of them had sneezed while snooping – and besides we were tired and going to bed, which we did.”
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Subsequent trips followed a similar pattern but strong forces were continually plotting to obstruct the traffic. Because a few loads marked for export had been diverted within the province, the Ontario Temperance Association had been enabled to institute legislation barring further shipments over the highways. To circumvent that obstacle the boys “in the Trade” shipped their cargoes from the distillery to Port Dover by rail, until a member of the OTA discovered a roadway between the track and the dock and invoked the new law.
But a siding was found which crossed the road and entered a fish house so a Canadian Pacific switching locomotive was engaged to push the car loaded with whiskey across the highway where everything was legal. Later it was deemed to be more expedient to load the blockade runners in Toronto but that entailed a longer haul including the 25 locks in the old Welland Canal.
The era of cross lake rum smuggling was of short duration but it added an exciting page to Great Lakes History.
About the Author: Mr. Dosey is chairman of the Membership Committee of G. L. H. S., a lakesman by avocation and has written frequently for Inland Seas.