A Prohibition Story
by Al Roach
the queer mess of human destiny
the determining factor is Luck.
Postcards that went into circulation
in Ontario and Michigan depicting Canada as the barroom for the
United States were vehemently opposed by temperance organizations.
Cartoon from “The Rum Runners, a prohibition scrapbook”
by C.H. (Marty) Gervais
any successful man tells me that along with the hard work and ability
there was a bit of good luck in his background, I believe him. There
must be any number of people who would have made it except for a
bit of bad luck.
was one of them. He was a victim of a piece of bad timing by the
United States Government. Yet I doubt if anyone in Washington ever
heard of him, let alone what they did to him.
story begins (and really ends I suppose) back in the late Roaring
Twenties and early Dirty Thirties when the States was still fooling
around with Prohibition long after we had dropped it in Canada.
were made “rum-running” on the Detroit River. I don’t
know why it was called that. There wasn’t much rum involved.
It was mostly good Canadian beer and whisky being funnelled through
the Border Cities to quench a gigantic thirst in the Detroit/Chicago
1924 alone, $30 million dollars worth of Canadian liquor was shipped
to the U.S. Estimated value in the States: $100 million. And a very
large percentage of it flowed through the Border Cities.
was one of the hundreds of good men involved in what was generally
regarded as a perfectly legitimate business. Buying Canadian booze
and shipping it across the river, usually after dark, in the fastest
and most powerful motorboats afloat.
was a colourful (and vicious) game of cops and robbers played between
the rumrunners and the Detroit patrol boats. The booze was purchased
legally in Canada and exported. Destination (if you believed the
export permits): Cuba.
boats would slip across the river to Wyandotte or Ecorse on the
Michigan side and be back “from Cuba” in a few hours.
That’s why they were known as the fastest boats afloat.
lot of money was made and lost quickly. When it was all over some
of these entrepreneurs had kings’ ransoms in the banks and
palatial homes in Walkerville. And others were broke.
and his cohorts weren’t the only ones involved. Many little
guys made money on the fringes of the operations, renting cars,
trucks or docks to the bootleggers. Even high school boys used to
skip classes occasionally and receive what was then the fantastic
wage of a dollar an hour loading booze on little docks in the old
Town of Sandwich.
told me his story years later, when the exciting days of prohibition
were just a nostalgic memory. I was a young reporter on The Windsor
Star’s suburban beat and Jim had a job with one of the outlying
municipalities, reading hydro meters or something like that. He
earned enough to keep body and soul together.
used to visit him in his small waterfront home in LaSalle. I found
him fascinating. There was a rumour around that Jim had been a wealthy
man in the good old days. No one knew the exact details. There were
vague references to a railway spur-line he was supposed to have
owned. And some people said he once had fifty men on his payroll,
including a few politicians.
used to look at a photograph he had hanging on the living room wall.
It showed a bunch of dudes in spats and bowler hats with their Goodfellow
bags and newspapers on the steps of the Detroit City Hall. Obviously
taken during the 1920s, they were a well dressed important-looking
bunch. Several could be identified as influential local politicians.
Harry Low’s mansion in
Olde Walkerville. (One of the more successful rumrunners) Photo
from “The Rum Runners, a prohibition scrapbook” by C.H.
probably were a group of fine honest fellows. But for some reason
or other the photo always looked to me like a gathering of the Border
branch of the Mafia. Or the Purple Gang. And there in the front
row, holding his Goodfellow paper on high, was Jim.
he didn’t talk about it much, but one day I thought he was
in a receptive mood and I asked him point-blank if any of the rumours
were true. He sat down on the chesterfield and started talking.
He didn’t sound like a man looking for sympathy. There was
no self-pity or bitterness. Just a matter-of-fact tone. Perhaps
just a bit of regret that things hadn’t turned out differently.
had started small – a few cases at a time. Then shipments
of a few dozen cases. After a year he was doing very well. He had
a truck operating. By 1933 Jim had to decide whether he was going
to be little all of his life or make it big. He had the contacts
and reputation. He’d take the plunge. Go by rail.
was all set,” Jim told me. “I had a fair pile in the
bank and people willing to lend me lots more. I was shipping out
of a little field. You can see it out the window there. I decided
to put in a railway spur-line and bring it in by box-car load. Safer
than by highway. And a lot more profitable.”
started. Jim sank a fortune into that little spur-line. It would
have paid for itself within months. Then the profits would have
started rolling in. But Washington was working against him. The
21st Amendment, passed on February 20, 1933 was slowly being ratified
by State legislatures all across the country. It was a race for
time. Jim versus the United States.
December 5, 1933 Utah ratified, the 36th state to do so. The Amendment
became law, according to Washington’s rules. Thirteen years
of Prohibition had ended. Just like that. The rum-runners were obsolete.
It was on that day that Jim’s spur-line was completed.
said Jim, “I sold the rails for scrap and paid off what I
could of my debts. It was all over. Some great days had come to
an end. And some of us with them. Come on outside and I’ll
show you some of the railway ties in the weeds.”
thought of Sophocles writing more than 2,000 years ago:
A wise gamester ought to take the dice
Even as they fall, and pay down quietly,
Rather than grumble at his luck.
I thought as I looked at Jim: what a beautiful philosophy; what
a beautiful person. As I said, there must be a lot of guys who would
have made it except for a little bad luck. Perhaps a bit of bad
timing on someone’s part. I don’t know why I haven’t
told this story before. Suppose I just didn’t feel like writing
it. But Jim’s been dead a long time now. I guess it doesn’t
matter any more.
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