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Home » The Human Element » Maritime Image of the Day: “Rum-runners”

Maritime Image of the Day: “Rum-runners”

The Coast Guard seizing around 1,000 cases of illegal alcohol from a speedboat off the coast of Watch Hill, R.I., after a crew of rum-runners led them on a guns-blazing chase from Montauk Point. November 1930. Credit Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

PortandTerminal.com, January 17, 2019

HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA – On this sad day 100 years ago the era of Prohibition began. While Prohibition meant that the production, transportation, and sale of alcohol was outlawed in America it sure didn’t stop the demand for it.

Rum-running, the organized smuggling of imported whiskey, rum and other liquor by sea and overland to the United States, started within weeks after Prohibition took effect on January 17, 1920. 

Many of the smugglers were enterprising Canadians who saw an opportunity to make a buck and jumped at the opportunity to supply the American’s demand for liquor.

Aboard the Coast Guard Cutter USS Seneca, Prohibition agents stand amidst cases of scotch whiskey confiscated from a "rum runner" boat.
Aboard the Coast Guard Cutter USS Seneca, Prohibition agents stand amidst cases of scotch whiskey confiscated from a “rum runner” boat. (© CORBIS)

During the prohibition era in the U.S., Canadian distillers and brewers were still allowed to export their product legally. All the Canadian rum-runners had to do was to buy alcohol from domestic manufacturers claiming it was for export to destinations where it was legal, such as Mexico. Wink, wink. In reality, they would take their cargo just outside U.S. coastal waters to await American buyers, who took the booze ashore.

In the U.S., the smuggling business was quickly dominated by organized crime, most notably Al Capone out of Chicago, and Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky in New York.

The CG-100, one of the 203 75-foot patrol boats built specifically for Prohibition enforcement duties. They were known as the “six-bitters” and entered service between 1924 and 1925. U.S. Coast Guard photo.
The CG-100, one of the 203 75-foot patrol boats built specifically for Prohibition enforcement duties. They were known as the “six-bitters” and entered service between 1924 and 1925. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Rum-running became much more difficult after the Coast Guard obtained fast “six-bitter” patrol boats and by 1926 could block the contact boats from making it ashore, forcing many runners to dump their liquor into the ocean to avoid arrest. Rum Row, the place offshore where the boats of buyers and suppliers would meet, was pushed farther out, making it difficult to make a profit. In 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that American-flagged ships with illegal liquor could be seized up to 34 miles from shore.

Black and white photo of people sitting at a bar celebrating the end of  Prohibition
The night they ended Prohibition, December 5th, 1933.

In 1933, after 13 bloody and fruitless years of trying to enforce Prohibition, the ban was repealed, putting gangsters across the U.S. out of the liquor smuggling game. However, organized crime’s capacity for smuggling booze was quickly converted into the traffic in illegal drugs. Just about this time, heroin, cocaine and cannabis were progressively coming under international treaty and prohibition.

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