With nationwide prohibition implementation in the United States on January 17th, 1920, procurement of alcoholic beverages were left to the role of any one of three major suppliers; the manufacturers (distilling liquor in secrecy), the bootleggers (moving liquor over land) and the rum runners (importing liquor over water).
At the very heart of the business of rum running was an invisible but very real line just three miles off the American coast known as the “rum line”. A border which once crossed outside of, the American law no longer held provenance. A border which in many a young, adventurous entrepreneurs eyes, separated the suppliers from the consumers. In the year prior to nationwide prohibition, national imports of Scotch totaled a handsome 914 gallons. Within the first two years of national temperance those same imports rose to a staggering 386,000 gallons per annum – an increase which saw Scotch sales alone increase over 400 times and yet Scotch didn’t come from the Americas. Rum Running was the reason – and business was good.
For the runners themselves however, it was the final 3 mile stretch within the American border known as the “rum row” that would require all their ingenuity and bravado if supply was to get through. Consisting predominantly of Caribbean rum, English gin and Scotch whisky, the British Bahamian port of Nassau (ironically the historic pirate capital of the old world) quickly became a primary stocking port-of-call where runners could negotiate their purchases in liquor before heading for the rum row. With Nassau located just 26 miles due east of Miami and a straight shot north to the entire eastern seaboard, it was perfectly located to access anywhere on the American east coast from Florida to Maine. This busy new trade route established between Nassau and the major rum row market off New Jersey, became known to all merchants as “The Great Whiskey Way”.
The sudden explosion in liquor traded out of the port of Nassau created a small fortune for the local port economy from the export tax received on all shipments. The new trade also paid dividends to the islands sleepy economy with revenues funding new jetties, harbour dredging, paved roads, sewage systems and even a new town generator. The local governor at the time was so impressed by the effects prohibition brought to his quiet town he suggested a statue be erected of Andrew Volstead (author of prohibitions governing Volstead Act) next to that of Queen Victoria and Christopher Columbus. Unfortunately however for Volstead, this never came about.
Of all the runners operating out of Nassau at this time (and there were many) few were as ingenious or respected as the 6 foot tall teetotaler William (Bill) McCoy, a.k.a. “The Real McCoy”. Credited with mastering the art of rum running, Bill was also the first to establish a trend of trading liquor on the rum line. By anchoring just outside the maritime border, any would be merchants or customers were invited to row, sail or power out to him at their own risk, to purchase bulk liquor at a cost roughly half that sold ashore. Visiting one of McCoy’s schooners was described by one customer as “like going to a supermarket” with price lists hanging over the ships gunwales and an open system of try before you buy. McCoy’s professional operation and reputation for selling uncut alcohol, led his customers to refer to him as “The Real McCoy” in respect for his honest dealings. Many influential characters of the time were rumoured to have been hosted by Bill during his time including Robert Wood Johnson (Vice President of Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical giant) who frequented the McCoy floating market, purchasing liquor and even partaking in the odd cocktail or two.
McCoy was also credited with inventing the “Ham” or “Burlock” (aka “Sacks” by the Coast Guard) consisting of a pyramid stock of 6 bottles wrapped tight in a hessian burlap sack for easier stacking and lugging between ship compared to the classic wooden crates of 12. Some merchants would later go even further and stuff their Hams with rock salt which, if approached by the authorities, could be thrown overboard to be sunk immediately hiding all incriminating evidence. Later once the salt had dissolved the sack would float back to the surface and be collected by the runners once again. McCoy’s rum row system was quickly copied by other adventurous merchants and at its height was not uncommon to see more than 100 boats vying in the illegal liquor trade off the coast of New Jersey, some even enticing customers with promises of wild parties and prostitutes. – [For more information on adventures of Bill McCoy see – Smuggling with the Real McCoy].
With so much liquor arriving into the United States daily through rum row, it was left to an ill equipped US Coast Guard (USCG) to police the coastal borders. At the beginning of prohibition, with a meager national fleet of only 55 vessels to cover 95k miles of coast line, the USCG were still in their infancy having only officially formed 5 years earlier when the US Revenue Cutter and the US Lifesaving Services merged. During the first four years of operating, the USCG was employed by the US Navy on escort duties during the Great War. By the time prohibition came about they were both under equipped and under trained to enforce the national explosion in the illegal border trade. To their one advantage, the USCG were returned their flagship from Naval service, the 204 foot cutter Seneca. Initially commissioned as a Derelict Destroyer (sinking shipwrecks that would otherwise cause havoc to shipping lanes) her role during the war would see her fitted with four 3-inch (76mm) guns and depth charge equipment for a role on submarine scouting and escort duty. By the time she was re commissioned back into the USCG she and her crew had escorted 30 convoys consisting of about 580 ships, had four close calls with torpedoes and believed to have sunk at least one submarine. In short, the Seneca was a veteran and compared to the smugglers, her fire power was unequal. It would be this same fire power which would ultimately bring McCoy’s rum running days to an end when in 1923 she seized McCoy aboard his flagship Tomoka (ex Arethusa). Despite the Tomoka having the speed to outrun the Seneca there was no arguing once a few 3 inch shells whizzed past her bows. Despite this major victory on the side of the authorities, it wouldn’t be until the USCG recruited a further 20 ex Naval Destroyers each with a crew of 120, before the runners would start to come under control. By 1926 the major run rows off New Jersey, Southern Florida and New York would dwindle from around a hundred runners at the start of prohibition to only four or five.
Unlike the merchants anchored outside the rum line, the runners within the 3 mile rum row took the greatest risks needing to both outsmart and outrun the developing USCG fleet. For the sly of mind, tactics were employed such as pouring oil on hot exhausts creating smoke screens to aid escape or by hiding stock underneath ships keels or through partially submerged towing rigs. For the majority though it was all about American muscle, a statement no better made than with a 20 foot planing hull fitted with a 400 HP, V12 Liberty plane engine. During the early days of running, the authorities were fighting a losing battle both on and offshore. Even when arrests were made, any vessels captured by the USCG were sold off at auction only to be often re purchased by the original owners and put back into the game. In one example, the steamer Underwriter was recorded captured by authorities four times in the same year. Despite a government grant of USD$14 million to improve their force and speed on the water, the USCG would still find themselves easily outpaced since they used the same boat builders employed by the smugglers. As such builders could easily out spec runners vessels from those manufactured for the opposition – especially since the runners paid a great deal better in both cash and alcoholic refreshment. With such a boost in demand for faster and stronger speed boats, design and technology took a leap forward on the back of V12 plane engines, evolving into the unique “cigarette” speedboat design still used in go-fast boats today.
By 1924 the authorities had finally recognised the need to extend the maritime border and with an increase from 3 to 12 miles or one hours sailing time from the coast; runners were confronted with their first major barrier in the fight for liquor. And step up they did, by the following year there were new go-fast boats fitted with two or even three Liberty engines, an easy feat when the Federal Government were offering them at a steal of only USD$100 each. A walk down the harbour front at New Bedford, Massachusetts (East of Rhode Island) during this time would reveal bespoke speed boats lined up next to the USCG vessels awaiting the next run. Crew from both groups could be seen sharing both banter and cigarettes before another nights real life game of catch me if you can.
- Popular Mechanics Magazine: The Battle of Rum Row, page 955 – June 1926
- Run the Rum In: South Florida During Prohibition, Sally J. Ling – 2007
- US Coast Guard: Online Photography Archives
- Last Call – The rise and fall of prohibition by Daniel Okrent. Scribner Inc, 2010