Rum-running in P.E.I.'s Bygone Days

Prince Edward Island had rum-runners, or smugglers, long after other provinces because P.E.I. had Prohibition — a total ban on alchohol — from 1901 until 1948, after the Second World War.

'You'd do almost anything in the '30s in order to make a few dollars'

P.E.I. had Prohibition longer than any other province in Canada — from 1901 to 1948. (Fernando Macias Romo/Shutterstock)

Reginald "Dutch" Thompson's column The Bygone Days brings you the voices of Island seniors, many of whom are now long-departed. These tales of the way things used to be offer a fascinating glimpse into the past. Every second weekend CBC P.E.I. will bring you one of Dutch's columns. 

Prince Edward Island had rum-runners, or smugglers, long after other provinces because P.E.I. had Prohibition — a total ban on alchohol — from 1901 until 1948, after the Second World War.

And the Island's rum-runners developed plenty of tricks to hide their valuable cargo from Prohibition officers, says historian Dutch Thompson. Each keg weighed about 54 kilograms or 120 pounds.

Dutch Thompson is an award-winning historian and storyteller. He has published a book about P.E.I.'s bygone days. (Pat Martel/CBC)

Why was there so much rum-running on P.E.I.? The answer is simple — money. There was very little of it in the early part of the last century. 

Suitcase full of liquor

Roy Clow, born in 1917 in Murray Harbour North, told Thompson about the low prices farmers got for their crops back in the 1930s.

Roy Clow fought with the navy during the Second World War and would bring a suitcase full of liquor when he got leave to come home to P.E.I. (Submitted by Dutch Thompson)

"We'd sell the turnips in the fall. The Newfoundland schooners would come in and we'd get 15 cents for a two-bushel bag of turnips," said Clow. "Potatoes was the same, 10 cents a bushel, some falls less than that."

Clow and his brother fished as well as farmed. Roy said he was getting two and a half cents a pound for lobsters when he signed on with the Royal Canadian Navy in the Second World War.

However every time he got leave to come home, Clow said, he'd bring a suitcase full of liquor — which was legal in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, but not on P.E.I.

Kegs of rum in New London Bay

Tommy Gallant, who was born in 1922 and lived to be 89, also spent his life at sea. Gallant was known as "The Gentle Fisherman." He played the mouth organ, tap danced and could drink a glass of water standing on his head, plus he had a great memory, said Thompson.

The sailing vessel Leona Maguire, formerly the notorious rum-running ship Nellie J. Banks, at dock in Murray Harbour circa 1940s. (PARO)

Gallant was raised in Bayview, between Cavendish and Stanley Bridge. His father Henry was a fisherman back in the days of sailing schooners and hand-lining codfish. The Gallants had 11 kids to feed and salt cod was selling for one cent a pound, so money was tight. 

"My father drank heavy. My father bootlegged. He done all the things in them days that he thought he was going to make some money," Gallant told Thompson. 

"And as we started to grow up, as young fellas, we thought we should sample it. And we did. Because we could steal it from our father quite easy, cause he had it hid everywhere. These were the days when the rum-runners were off of Cavendish, out in the Gulf of St. Lawrence."

Gallant recalled seeing the famous rum-running ship Nellie J. Banks, with its equally famous captain, Edward Dicks. 

Tommy Gallant holding anchor hooks from the Marco Polo, a famous schooner which sank off Cavendish in 1883. (Dutch Thompson)

Gallant's father would take rum, wine, whiskey and hide it in the woods or sink it New London Bay using scrap steel.

"On his way home with a load of rum, 10-gallon kegs, he would run a long line and he'd put all this steel on it and tie the kegs on it. And of course it'd all go to the bottom. And then he had a great landmark and at night he'd take a dory out and he'd pull up one end and he'd take a keg ashore."

The empty kegs were used to salt mackerel in, and Gallant told Thompson you could smell salt fish and rum at the same time. 

Bag of salt trick

Lloyd Weeks was born in 1921. He wasn't a rum-rummer but he was an avid sailor and saw many a rum boat off P.E.I. 

View of Water Street in Charlottetown, circa 1860s, including Windsor Warehouse, also called the Bonded Warehouse — a storehouse for seized liquor during Prohibition. (PARO)

One day out in the Northumberland Strait, Weeks and his father saw a schooner owned by Joe Ball, a rum-runner from Cape Tormentine, N.B.

"It was just breaking day, and he looked over and said, 'That boat's afire over there,'" Weeks said. "And Jesus, the flames in the engine room were clean up to his knees! And my father always wore heavy woolen pants and they wouldn't go afire." 

The pair rescued Joe Ball and put out the fire, but Ball's boat's engine wouldn't run, so they took him back to shore. Just as they were coming into Seacow Head, Ball brought out a bag of salt, which also contained bottles of liquor, and put it gently over the side of the boat.

The police were waiting on shore to talk to Ball. He didn't tell them anything but waited to go back out to the spot where he had dropped the sack in the water. 

"There was a little bobber on the whole thing, and after the salt melted out or whatever it was going to do, up comes the bobber, along comes Joe Ball and he has his booze back!" Weeks said.

The rum-runners spent a lot of energy hiding liquor, but took the risk to make $3 or $4 a gallon.

'The Mounties were waiting for us'

Rum-runners also hid the rum in their ships under tons of cod, or buried under the furrows in a plowed field. Another popular spot to hid a keg or two was in the pig sty or under the floorboards of the bull's stall in the barn.

Oliver Smith used to help his father run rum in the Savage Harbour area in the 1930s. (Dutch Thompson)

And there was one even more unusual hiding spot — church. Thompson has been told of at least two churches used as hiding places for rum and or two-gallon cans of pure alcohol. 

Another favourite trick was to land the rum when everyone's attention was diverted. 

Back in the 1930s, Oliver Smith from Mount Stewart helped his dad Tom run rum. One night in 1936 he remembers landing a big load in Savage Harbour, while there was a religious meeting at the St. Andrews Church up the road.

"We came in with about 110 kegs on this load. We went in and the Mounties were waiting for us in there.... We hid across the bay there in MacPhee's Cove," Smith said. They evaded the Mounties, and unloaded the liquor at what was called The Crick bridge. 

"The people from Savage Harbour and Point Desroches were going across the bridge with the horse and wagons and we were throwing the liquor up onto the road. And they had two or three bigs cars there, I think they were old Rios, they were pretty powerful. They used to take the liquor into a farmer's house and they hid a lot of it in the cellar and in the barn. I remember one fella up here in St. Andrews where one load went, he was a preacher, he went around preaching and he was always a religious-type fella. Nobody ever figured he'd be hiding liquor for them. But you'd do almost anything in the '30s in order to make a few dollars."

'I'll sink the rum in the bay'

The rum-runners had to be on the lookout not just for the Prohibition officers and RCMP patrol boats, but also other rum-runners.

Dalvay-by-the-Sea in 1896. It eventually became a hotel run by notorious rum-runner Capt. Edward Dicks. (PARO)

Down in the Annandale area, stories are still told about two feuding families who regularly stole each other's kegs of rum — one boatload was famously stolen three times.

One well-known Crown prosecutor named Pat Martin was determined to nab Henry Gallant, Tommy Gallant's father. 

"Us young fellas were schooled up by our father. We had a big tree in the woods, probably 80 feet in height. A big spruce tree. My father used to tell us kids 'If Pat Martin is here before I get home, one of you boys go up that tree and wave a flag three times — when I'm coming up the bay, I can see that plain — and I'll know he's there and I'll sink the rum in the bay,'" said Tommy.

Next time you drive along P.E.I.'s North Shore, Thompson advises you take another look at the beautiful Dalvay-by-the-Sea hotel, once a grand home owned by the Island's biggest rum-rummer, the infamous Captain Dicks.

Prohibition was finally repealed in P.E.I. — the last province in Canada to do so — in 1948. However it was replaced by the Temperance Act, which restricted the sale of alcohol. Island residents required a permit to purchase limited amounts of liquor and a special permit was available to visitors. 

In 1960, the restrictions on quantities were removed, and in 1967 the individual and tourist permits were finally abolished, according to the provincial government's website. 

More P.E.I. news

With files from Sara Fraser


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