Windsor Went Wild
in the Roaring Twenties
here for a larger view of the above image.
From top right, counter-clockwise: 1. This
beer-laden smuggler’s truck was too heavy for the Lake St.
Clair ice.1933 (Detroit News); 2. Jalopies were used to pick up
contraband Canadian liquor from vessels in Lake St. Clair (Great
Lakes Museum); 3. Detroit Police at river patrol headquarters, foot
of Riopelle St.1932 (Detroit News); 4. A waterfall of booze pours
through windows of a still on Gratiot Ave (Detroit News); 5. Rum
runner leaving export dock at Amherstburg (Rum Running & The
Roaring Twenties, Philip P. Mason); 6. Rum runner Jim Cooper’s
Walkerville mansion. Also pictured at bottom left are cases of liquor
packed in jute bags so they would sink when thrown overboard.
Canada and the United States were witnessing the dawning of the
modern age. In the U.S., the 1920 census reported for the first
time a majority of Americans living in urban areas. An explosion
of new inventions and technological breakthroughs would soon transform
popular lifestyles. Jazz, Wall Street speculation, women’s
suffrage, radio, Hollywood, shorter work weeks and increased wages
would lead to a revolution in communications, transportation and
January 16, 1920, the U.S. Eighteenth Amendment banning the sale,
manufacture or transportation of “intoxicating liquor”
took effect. An atmosphere of general lawlessness was bred by prohibition,
bootleggers and gamblers. Gangsters fought to secure a share of
the lucrative business and corrupt politicians turned a blind eye
as mobsters like Al Capone terrorized entire cities.
Most Canadian provinces went dry at the same time the Eighteenth
Amendment came into place. The Liquor Control Act in Ontario (LCA)
forbid public or hotel drinking but did not prohibit the manufacture
and export of liquor.
border cities like Windsor, this loophole in the Act would set the
course for a wild decade never seen before or since. Opposite Windsor
was big parched Detroit and beyond, the entire U.S. with its tongue
hanging out. It didn’t take long for enterprising businessmen
in Windsor to set up export docks to supply those thirsty Americans.
docks were simple frame sheds, which dotted every possible location
from Lake St. Clair to Lake Erie along the Detroit River. Every
inlet, every bank that would support a dock was used. It was the
perfect setup to make a quick buck or an easy million.
The liquor moved to the docks by trucks, protected by the B-13 customs
form, for liquor in transit. Consigned to someone in Mexico, Cuba,
Bermuda or St. Pierre de Miquelon, the liquor was loaded in speedboats
or rowboats, which theoretically, then headed for Cuba or Mexico.
reality, these boats made the short trip across the Detroit River
and the liquor was then smuggled into the U.S. When a boat cleared
for Cuba in the morning, and returned in the afternoon to clear
for St. Pierre, nobody asked any questions.
At the turn of the 20th century, Petit Cote, six miles west of Windsor
was a quiet village where people spoke French and attended church
on Sunday. On weekdays they cultivated their radish patches.
radish-growers soon learned that if they rowed to Detroit with a
bottle of whisky they could double their investment. Soon they were
selling cases instead of bottles and had launches instead of rowboats.
They built big docks and imposing houses and even changed the name
of one section of Petit Cote to LaSalle, which sounded swankier.
one point, it was said that more liquor moved across a couple of
miles of waterfront at LaSalle than across any other couple of miles
police were aware of these operations and it was their job to ensure
that the liquor did not get “short-circuited” back to
Windsor’s blind-pigs once it left the docks.
1953, Windsor Police Chief Carl Farrow recounted to the Windsor
Daily Star his experiences as a Provincial Constable in the late
20s. “One day you’d see a fellow rowing across the river
from Detroit, in a small rowboat. He’d buy a couple of cases
of liquor, and then row back. In a little while, he’d row
back over to the Canadian side and buy three or four cases. Next
day, when he came over, his boat would be powered with a shiny new
outboard motor. He’d buy more liquor and make more trips.
Then one day he’d show up in a big speedboat. He’d keep
making his trips then suddenly disappear. Months later, he’d
come back with his rowboat and start all over again. This sort of
thing was happening all the time.”
also described how things were done in the winter. “In Amherstburg,
they’d take an old sedan, put chains on it, cut the top off
it and load it up with whisky. They crossed the ice of Lake Erie
and carried planks to help them across cracks in the ice –
it would be black with cars…heading for the States. The highways
all along the riverfront were just black with trucks carting liquor
to the export docks.”
Windsor, inns sprouted up overnight and were packed. This outraged
Rev. Leslie Spracklin of Howard Avenue Mission whose impassioned
speeches induced authorities to appoint him a “special temperance
enforcement officer” with the right to carry a gun.
swaggered around with armed bodyguards raiding inns. They once raided
a private yacht without a warrant. The owner sued them for the illegal
search and was awarded nominal damages by Mr. Justice Latchford
of the Ontario Supreme Court, who commented that Spracklin and his
pals, boarding the yacht, “displayed their pistols like veritable
1921, Spracklin and his men climbed through the windows of the Chappell
House and were surprised by Babe Trumbull, the proprietor. After
an argument, Spracklin shot Trumbull dead. Charged with murder,
he testified that Trumbull had moved a hand as though reaching for
a gun. He was acquitted on a plea of self-defense although it was
shown that Trumbull had not been armed.
Constable Farrow recalls meeting two of the biggest Chicago gangsters:
the notorious Al Capone and Bugs Moran. While they ran outside the
law in their own country, they came to Windsor as two gentlemen
in speedboats, conducting a simple business transaction.
crooks sought control of the export business and gang warfare broke
out across the border, especially by the Purple Gang. Things also
turned nasty along the Windsor waterfront. Horace Wilde, a photographer
for the Windsor Daily Star, was taking pictures at the Amherstburg
export docks, when he was roughed up and his camera smashed. He
was abducted, and shackled in chains and would have ended up at
the bottom of the river, but was saved at the last moment. Constable
Farrow arrested one of the men convicted of the abduction.
government soon cracked down on the exporters. There was debate
over what “in transit” meant. Farrow participated in
raiding parties and began seizing export docks and the liquor stored
in them. On one occasion, he watched highjackers working from the
river and boats, attempt to steal the stock an export dock. The
thieves tossed their guns into the river when police approached.
here to read on and learn more about some of the fascinating
local chararcters who made this decade wild!
here to read the next article in the prohibition 2 issue
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