Prohibition on Cape Cod
by Ellen NicKenzie Lawson c. 2015.
Nantucket’s Rum Row
The major supplier of imported liquor for Cape Cod during Prohibition was Rum Row off Nantucket. Liquor was also smuggled from Boston and New Bedford to the Cape by highway and boats.
Captain Bill McCoy‘s liquor was termed the “real McCoy” during Prohibition. McCoy smuggled liquor to the Cape area during the early years of Prohibition from his boats on Rum Row. He also hid out with the Wampanoags near Gay Head on the Vineyard.
A submarine may have delivered liquor to the Cape in the summer of 1924. This was a rumor reported in the newspapers. That same summer on the Hudson River, a submarine was also sighted. It was photographed from the air by a commercial map-making firm. The Navy denied it had any submarines in the area. Was this the same submarine seen off the Cape and also on Rum Row?
Once, a ship from Nova Scotia strayed too close to Nauset Beach during a snowstorm. It was less than ten miles off shore. The Coast Guard seized the ship. The captain argued that, due to the storm, he made an honest miscalculation of his location. He said he was legally headed to Rum Row in international waters. The ship, carrying 6000 gallons of liquor, was released.
Canadian newspapers then reported this particular captain was “in the rum game” and smuggling to the American shore. After this, the Coast Guard began to hassle his ship whenever it was sighted. The Coast Guard even deliberately rammed the Canadian boat. In retaliation, the captain later tried to ram a Coast Guard ship 70 miles off the coast.
Another foxy Nova Scotia sea captain sailed his ship near Provincetown’s Highland Light. The ship was seized and towed to Boston. Its captain tried to bribe the Coast Guard with free champagne to let him go. When the bribe failed, he tried to cut the tow rope with a knife before being subdued.
Ferry boats were sometimes involved in smuggling. This happened when passengers hid liquor in their cars on the return trip from Nantucket. Rum Row was near Nantucket and the passengers picked up this liquor on the island.
The Cape Cod Canal was used to smuggle liquor from Canada. This was true especially during winters when travel around the outer Cape was too dangerous due to bad weather and rough seas. Reputedly authorities at both ends of the canal were bribed by smugglers.
Lumber and coal ships traveling up and down the East Coast often smuggled liquor. The liquor was hidden beneath loads of lumber or coal. One coal barge off Nobska Point near Woods Hole was stopped by the Coast Guard. The captain refused to allow a search. So a guardsman was placed aboard to steer it to nearby Tarpaulin Cove. There, during a search, several thousand cases of liquor were discovered.
Cape fishermen often smuggled liquor ashore from Rum Row. This was so especially in winter when fish were not biting. Local people always knew when one of their own was engaged in smuggling. They knew because his tab at the grocery store was always paid up all winter long. In addition, wives of fishermen stayed up late at night knitting sweater after sweater. They did this as they awaited their husbands’ safe return from Rum Row. The Coast Guard suspected one particular fisherman, with boats at Billingsgate Island harbor, because he kept making good wages during the winter.
Innocent fishermen were sometimes suspected of smuggling, especially if their boats were running at night with the lights off. That was a standard trick of rum runners. One fisherman, supplying the Boston fish market, was suspected because his boat’s name was the same as the name of a known rum boat. His business associates in Boston wrote letters describing him as an industrious, honest man and a non-drinker. The fisherman himself protested, “I do not want the name [smuggler] unless I am getting the game.”
Provincetown, at the tip of the Cape, was equidistant by water from Boston and Rum Row. Smugglers used the town as a base of operations. They had short-wave radios there to contact Boston and ships. Once, the Coast Guard rescued the crew of a ship wrecked off Race Point. The agency knew it was a rum ship, but their mission was also to save lives at sea.
Another time a local man and his son were arrested smuggling a single sack of liquor in Provincetown harbor. They had moved it from their small boat to the family car which was parked at the dock.
And when a New York yacht went aground off a local beach, the Coast Guard took notice because it was suspected of smuggling liquor earlier to New York City. The captain’s defense was that he mistook lights from cars parked near the beach for a lighthouse. Not that he came too close to shore to land liquor.
A rum ship unloading in Ellisville near the Canal was seized. A summer cottage next to the Sandy Neck lighthouse was used to store liquor headed for the mainland. A woman who knew Barnstable harbor well, was asked by local smugglers to help them navigate in the fog. She refused and years later divulged this invitation on her death bed.
Orleans and Chatham
The outer beach on the Atlantic Ocean was rarely used for smuggling because the surf was too strong. One rum boat was seized near the Orleans Coast Guard station. It was probably landing so close as insurance in case it foundered in the surf?
A rum boat, stranded on a bar in Chatham Inlet, was pulled free by the Coast Guard. But it was seized soon afterward as guardsmen could not ignore the strong the smell of liquor which it gave off.
Nantucket and Vineyard Sounds
The “Sounds” between Nantucket and the Vineyard and the Cape were more protected than the open ocean and closer to Rum Row. Ships landing liquor there were far from the main Coast Guard stations in Provincetown and Woods Hole.
Men landing liquor in Dennisport were discovered and arrested by guardsmen coming by car from Woods Hole!
A nautical chart, found on a rum runner belonging to a smuggler named Reardon, listed liquor “drops” at Waquoit, Popponessett Beach, Cotuit, Point Isabella, East Bay, Centerville, the town dock in Hyannis, Hyannisport, Parket’s Neck, and Harwichport.
Smugglers sometimes used planes to fly liquor from Rum Row to the Cape, landing along beaches at low tide. Clammers on one Hyannis beach were irate when one of these planes tried to buzz them off the beach.
One liquor drop in Cotuit was near the DuPont seaplane hangar . Was this the mysterious seaplane hangar mentioned in a later history which said 6000 cases were stored there and the caretaker paid a dollar a case to guard these?
Two small boats, with skiffs attached, waited outside Cotuit harbor one night for a rum boat from Boston. Before the rum boat arrived, the Coast Guard arrived. The smugglers in the smaller boats hailed the arriving boat thinking it was the Boston delivery! Naturally their boats and skiffs were seized and the men arrested. Their error in the dark was understandable. The Coast Guard boat was a former rum runner which had been seized and converted to government use.
Liquor was stored on an estate in Craigsville during the winter. One winter a Portuguese couple, a cook and chauffeur, decided to not to leave their summer cottage on the estate. Smugglers took to frightening them by firing guns outside the cottage and beating chains against the windows. Eventually, the couple gave up and fled to Santuit for the rest of the winter.
Falmouth and Bourne
The Town of Falmouth, which included the large Coast Guard base in Woods Hole, probably had less smuggling than elsewhere. One rum ship did get lost off Falmouth Heights when its captain, in a heavy fog, mistook Nobska Lighthouse, in Vineyard Sound, for Hedges Fence Light in Buzzards Bay? Or so he said. When the fog lifted, his ship was seized.
The U.S. Fisheries in Woods Hole had a research ship named the Albatross. Unfortunately, that was the same name as a known rum ship. So when the Coast Guard at sea came upon the well-marked Fisheries ship, guardsmen fired on it.
A summer estate in Wild Harbor, across Buzzards Bay from New Bedford, had a radio station. This station was used by smugglers to monitor liquor going through the Cape Cod Canal and liquor coming in from Rum Row. During chases by the Coast Guard, smugglers often tossed liquor cases overboard to lighten their boats . This allowed them to make a fast getaway. Then they would return later to salvage the cases.
They did not look kindly on salvage competition. The gang controlling Wild Harbor once caught a rival gang and and tied them up to a tree. Then the gang members kicked them in the backside and asked if they wanted to die by drowning or a bullet? Once the others confessed where they were salvaging, they were allowed to depart.
Chases off the Cape
One chase began 26 miles from Boston Light. The chase lasted to 30 miles south of Cape Cod Light before the smugglers escaped. In that chase the Coast Guard fired 200 rounds of machine gunfire.
Vineyard Sound witnessed a famed rum chase. This was when three Coast Guard boats finally caught the Nola. It was a rum runner with armored plate, bullet-proof port-holes, and three motors which could give it a speed of 40 knots even while carrying 800 cases of liquor.
Three smugglers were wounded in the gunfire before the Nola was captured. They were taken to Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis for treatment.
Prohibition ended with repeal of the 18th Amendment in December 1933. Even so, a black market continued for several years as smugglers could still make a profit by not charging the new liquor excise taxes.
One ring operated out of a home, guarded by police dogs, near Waquoit Bay. The ring stored its liquor further down the Cape in an old factory and ice house in Orleans. U.S. Congressman, Charles Gifford, who represented the Cape and Islands, made a hand-drawn map for authorities showing post-Prohibition illegal liquor drops in Cotuit.
For more research on this subject and for photos, see Lawson’s Papers in the Nickerson Library at Cape Cod Community College in West Barnstable. This was based on research at the National Archives in D.C. which houses 90 boxes of records of ships seized during Prohibition by the Coast Guard. Also consult Cape Cod Life and Nantucket Magazine which ran articles by Lawson c, 2002-2004. Or click on this website under ” Raw data: Alphabetical List of Smuggling Ships for Cape and Islands,” to find names of ships, locations of seizure or sighting, and dates.
[For general background on Prohibition, see Lawson’s Smugglers, Bootleggers, and Scofflaws: Prohibition and New York City (New York, SUNY Press, 2013) available as an e-book or in paperback. It is a scholarly work, less than 200 pages, with text, photos, primary documents, extensive footnotes, and index.]