“The Rumrunners – a prohibition scrapbook”
by C. H. (Marty) Gervais, 1980
condensed by Laryssa Landale
In the fashionable Border City district called Walkerville
stands a magnificent symbol of one man’s dreams,
built in the Roaring Twenties by a notorious rum runner. While the
man is long gone, the mansion still stands, a reminder of a time
when anyone with vision and guts could go from rags to riches, overnight.
His name was Harry Low and this is his story.
Self-Made Rum Runner
the hundreds of Windsor and area rumrunners, bootleggers, blind
pig owners and whisky exporters, there were few giants. One was
Low was working as a machinist when he decided to open a pool hall
on Sandwich Street. He didn’t realize it at the time, but
the poolroom was the first step toward rum running and the fortunes
he had always dreamed of.
prohibition came into full force in the United States and Ontario,
Low saw a chance to make some easy money. He borrowed $300 from
a friend and set up a bootlegging business selling liquor to poolroom
enthusiasts. But the poolroom was quickly abandoned when profits
from the $300 spurred him on to engage in the lucrative whisky export
business. Low threw his energies into shipping liquor from a Windsor
export dock on the Detroit River by speedboat, ostensibly headed
for Cuba and West Indian ports – but, in fact, headed to Michigan
destinations and Yankee blind pigs. Soon Low’s operation connected
to a network from Windsor docks to Detroit, St. Louis, Chicago and
quickly outgrew the limited cargo holds of the speedboats. He invested
his profits in two large cargo ships – the Geronimo and the
Harry Low’s S.S. Vedas
supplied huge quantities of liquor from
Montreal to thirsty prohibition-era Americans. / Windsor Star
of these activities, the United States border patrol agents seized
the Geronimo. They moored it to a Michigan dock, but a storm set
the vessel free and the Geronimo drifted back to the Canadian side
where it soon resumed its rum running. Sometimes you also had to
World War I minesweeper, the Vedas, was refurbished and put into
service hauling liquor from Montreal to Windsor, and also boldly
crossing Lake Erie to the States for deliveries. But most often,
the Vedas would transport its shipments from Quebec and rest offshore
just outside the territorial limits of the United States. During
the night, swift cruisers would steal out, load up the contraband
and ferry it to shore.
Built By Booze: Low’s famous
Walkerville landmark was
also home for local politico Paul Martin Sr. / photo C. Edwards
Low had gone from bootlegger to businessman and was soon head of
the largest export firm in the Border Cities – Low, Leon and
Burns. This business virtually controlled the movement of liquor
on the waterfront in Detroit and Windsor. It took over an entire
railroad depot for its headquarters and fed shipments of booze to
speakeasies and blind pigs in Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland and even
to the infamous Rum Row on the Atlantic coast.
success didn’t come easy. Low went through the hectic, frenetic
bootlegging apprenticeship like anyone else. He devised some bizarre
ruses to get booze across the border. One time workers at a Ford
plant were astonished to see a Model T hurtling off the end of a
dock into the river. Low’s plan was to divert attention and
send the police into action to drag for “bodies,” while
Low and his racketeering rumrunners rushed three truckloads of liquor
into boats and across the river.
was small time compared to the whisky export business with its cargo
ships and railroad warehouses full of booze. Flush with cash, Low
went on a spending spree, and built his stately Walkerville home.
It cost him more than $130,000 to build and it was regarded as the
snooty showpiece of Walkerville. The windows were leaded, the floors
tiled, and it boasted a cloister for reflection and meditation.
One room’s excesses included gold-tipped icicles. In poetic
fashion Low had ordered a slate roof to be made “like the
waves of the sea.”
also invested in the multi-million dollar Dominion Square in Montreal,
a towering office building that was the tallest in that city in
its day. But his vision far exceeded his budget and cost-overruns
finally led to losing ownership of the structure.
partnership in the export firm with Charles Burns and Marco Leon,
one of the principals of the old Carling Brewery suffered a major
blow in 1928 when the company was sued by the federal government.
During the hearings, some of the tax dodges employed by Low and
his associates came to light. On one occasion it was revealed that
a large quantity of illegal liquor was seized on a railroad siding
at London, Ontario, billed as “canned meat.”
and his associates were also linked to the gangland murder of one
of their employees – John Allen Kennedy, discovered bludgeoned
and shot through the skull in the woods near the Ohio-Michigan state
was the vice-president of the Carling Brewery at the time, and Kennedy
was a bookkeeper for the company. For weeks police attempted to
link the Kennedy murder to Low, to no avail. Police never charged
anyone, and the case remained unsolved.
finances dwindled at the end of prohibition. He failed miserably
as a promoter, invested unwisely and virtually crippled himself
financially due to misdirected ventures. In addition to this he
was continuously under investigation by the police.
the 1928 hearings and the death of Kennedy, he was arrested in 1931
on a charge of trying to bribe an RCMP officer. Soon after, Low
battled extradition to the United States to face a similar charge.
He won the extradition fight but his troubles didn’t end there.
1934 Low’s fortunes went the way of the stock market- this
was the era of the Great Depression. His ingenious auto carburettor
that was supposed to use so little gasoline – an idea automakers
are still struggling with today. But in the thirties fuel efficiency
wasn’t an issue, and his idea was scoffed at and rejected…and
his financial resources dried up.
attempt to seize the contents of his plush Walkerville home to pay
off his debts was blocked by Low when he proved $40,000 in antiques
belonged not to him but his were owned by his wife.
In 1934, Low and his associates launched Trenton Valley Promotions
in Michigan. He resigned as its president in 1936. In 1939, faced
with a United States indictment charging him and Walter H. Hardie,
a vice-president of Trenton Valley, with stock swindling, Low moved
to Sorel, Quebec, and returned to the shipyards, and was employed
as a toolmaker, the profession he was working in before he started
his career in rumrunning.
He returned to Detroit in 1949, but when he attempted to set up
his own machinist shop, his identity was revealed.
then returned to Windsor to quietly live out his days in a home
on McKay Avenue. Harry Low died at Hotel Dieu Hospital in 1955.
In a 1997 column for the Windsor Star Marty Gervais provided a more
intimate portrait of this bootlegging giant. Harry Low’s grandson,
Windsor resident Bruce Low, characterized him as a man who may have
lost his fortune, but never lost his pride. Bruce remembers his
grandfather as a kind man who “smiled a lot. Seemed relaxed,
at ease, content, on top of the world ... If he didn’t have
any money, I never knew it. There was always food in the house.”
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