life and times
hiram who
birth of the auto
border cities
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A Prohibition Story

by Al Roach

In the queer mess of human destiny
the determining factor is Luck.
-W.E. Woodward

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

Whenever 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.

Jim 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.

Jim’s 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.

Fortunes 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 region.

In 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.

Jim 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.

It 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.

The 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.

A 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.

Jim 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.

Jim 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.

I 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.

I 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. (Marty) Gervais

They 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.

Normally 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.

He 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.

“I 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.”

Construction 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.

On 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.

“Well,” 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.”

I 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.

And 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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