April 21, 1923

By Gregory Clark

A bright young man from Montreal landed in Halifax with $5,000 cash in his pocket.

He put up at the best hotel. He banked his money at the corner bank.

And then he walked promptly down to the waterfront.

Along the miles of docks he strolled, in and out of tiny, shabby lanes, in the shadow of tall ships, and little, fat, iron ships, and tidy old sailing ships. He talked with sailors and longshoremen, ship’s officers and the masters of schooners. He spent an hour or more in each of the dim little cafes that are to be found in Water street, talking to all who would spare the time to drink a cup of coffee or a snort of contraband Negrita rum at his invitation.

The second day in Halifax he spent in the company of the hotel clerk, of the manager of the bank where his money lay, and of a merchant from whom he purchased some collars.

The third day, four gentlemen lunched with him at his hotel. These four were strangers to him and he to them. They had come to lunch in answer to his telephoned invitation “to talk important business.”

“I have five thousand dollars,” the young man from Montreal was saying “It is all I have. It represents a bungalow which was my home, and the cash surrender value of my insurance policies.

“But I will contribute also my personal services. I have here personal references that will vouch for my honesty. You can wire Montreal for confirmation of these letters.

“The chartering of a two-masted schooner will cost us $1,500 for one trip, six weeks. The wages of captain, mate and crew, with bonuses, all set us back, roughly, another $1,000.

“Whiskey can be bought to-day at St. Pierre $23.50 a case, and sold off New York at $34.50. The profit is $11 a case.

“If each of you gentlemen will kick in ten thousand dollars, we can buy nearly two thousand cases at St. Pierre; and on the second leg the voyage, three thousand cases at Nassau.

“You can figure the profits…”

Two days later, from one of the docks off Water street, a trim schooner put to sea.

Aboard her was her master, who had just banked $1,500 to his credit before sailing. Aboard her also was the bright young man from Montreal. And in a locker in her cabin was the sum of $42,000 in cash.

The smart little schooner, of a hundred and fifty tons, fled nor’east before a fair wind out Halifax, and in three days anchored in the harbor of the island of St. Pierre, one of the two in the St. Pierre-Miquelon group, off the south coast of Newfoundland, which belongs to France.

There is no prohibition in France nor in her colonial possessions.

The warehouses on the wharves of St. Pierre are crammed with hundreds of thousands of cases of whiskey, rum, wines and liquors of every sort.

Big ocean steamers bring heavy cargoes of liquor to St. Pierre from Scotland and France.

But as fast as they bring it, small steamers and schooners take it away.

The young Montrealer was rowed ashore in the dinghy. He was directed to a building abutting on the docks of St. Pierre. There to a man at a counter he made known his request for a cargo of two thousand cases of whiskey, rum and wine, to total $42,000.

With another official, be arranged for a berth one of the docks. With the French customs officers he arranged for clearance of his cargo of booze to the port of Nassau, in the Bahamas.

And that night, his cargo of two thousand cases was loaded aboard the little schooner.

In four more days the schooner entered Halifax harbor. To excise officers who promptly demanded her clearance papers and manifest, it was shown that the schooner was merely putting in to Halifax for water and to drop a member the ship’s company.

The young Montreal man was put ashore, and after a few hours in harbor, the schooner went to sea again without him.

And he took train for New York, having made complete arrangements with the master of the schooner to meet him at certain point in the Ambrose Channel off New York seven days later.

In New York it did not take the young Montrealer seven days to find a purchaser for the two thousand cases. He dined two nights at a fashionable café, made the acquaintance of the head waiter in that time, and then asked him who in New York would like to pick up two thousand cases.

He was promptly introduced to his man.

Five days later, at dusk, a small steel tug, aboard which was the young man from Montreal and the fat gentleman who was buying the cargo, drew up alongside the schooner, which, true to its master’s word, was lying just where he said it would be lying in the Ambrose Channel.

The two thousand cases were transferred from the schooner to the tug.

And $66,000 cash was paid over to the Montrealer, who stowed it in the cabin locker, and instructed the skipper to set sail for Nassau at dawn.

Nassau is seven hundred miles below New York, off the Florida Coast. But the little schooner made the voyage, in spite of bad weather, in five days.

At Nassau, the Montrealer went ashore, and within an hour had purchased three thousand cases of Scotch whiskey. The schooner drew up alongside a large tramp steamer just in from Glasgow, and the cases were shifted from the big ship to the little two-master. On the schooner’s deck, the young man paid over $65,000 cash to the agent of the owners of the whiskey.

And cleared Nassau for St. Pierre.

But the schooner didn’t go to St. Pierre. It hauled into the Ambrose Channel about eight days later, after a rough passage.

By a passing launch, the young man sent a message ashore. And that night, aboard the same steel tug, came the same fat man, and took over the three thousand cases at $35 a case – a lump sum of $105,000 cash, paid over in $1,000 bills, in the cabin of the little fishing schooner.

The next morning, the schooner set sail for Halifax, where it arrived three days later and set ashore the young man and his wad of money. But because it was cleared from Nassau to St. Pierre, the schooner could not stop, and went on to St. Pierre, where it loaded with ballast, and cleared St. Pierre in ballast for Halifax.

The young man went to his hotel and called up his four partners.

They assembled at once to hear the news.

And $105,000 was split five ways pro rata, according to the investment of each.

The last reports on this bright young man is that he and his backers have dispensed with slow schooners and have chartered a steamship of the type known as a trawler, and are making the run between St. Pierre and Nassau, with intermediate store each way of the Jersey coast.

Instead of three thousand case lots, they are carrying thirty and forty thousand case lots.

They double their money each round trip.

There will be no shortage of motor cars in their families.

They are reputed millionaires.

By the greatest of good fortune for the rum runners, there are two ports of the Atlantic coast which do not demand clearance papers.

The laws of the sea are hard and fast laws. You can’t poke your nose into every port of the world and drop anchor. There are certain little formalities to be seen to. Officers come aboard and demand your clearance papers, from your last port of call. You have to show that the cargo mentioned in those papers is intact. You have to show that you have come direct from that port. They don’t allow loitering about the high seas.

But St. Pierre and Nassau in the Bahamas, beautifully positioned, one at the north end and one at the south end of the Atlantic coast, are not strict in the matter of clearance.

If you happen to drop anchor in Nassau, cleared from St. Pierre with a cargo of whiskey, why, nobody is going to pester you with questions if that cargo of whiskey has mysteriously disappeared between the port of clearance and the port of destination.

How ideal for the rumrunners!

A veritable flood of liquor is pouring into America from Europe through these two ports.

Many Canadian ships, from little fishing schooners to yachts, are employed in the trade.

And unbelievable fortunes are being made. The only difficulty is that, like all good things, too many get wise to it, and gum it up. Too many ships are peddling their goods off the coast nowadays. With the coming of spring, their number will be increased a hundredfold, it is expected.

The result is, that instead of whiskey selling at $60 a case off New York, with a profit of nearly $40 for the rumrunner, it has dropped to a little over $30.

Too many crooks spoil the broth. There is likely to be a glut of whiskey off New York and Boston this summer. The schooners that pick it up for $20 to $25 a case at Nassau will have to sell it a little over cost. Profits will be cut. A lot of good men will be ruined and go back to fishing and those other industries of the coast.

Off Halifax and certain other smaller ports of Nova Scotia which it would be cruel to mention, I visited some of the rumrunners.

Romance has come back to the sea, and especially to canvas. For half a century canvas has been on the wane. It has been reduced to fishing and to the carriage of certain foul-smelling commodities from little islands in the sea to the mainland. Sail had fallen to a pretty low ebb. The men who could sail a ship were few in number.

Then came the rum game, and the rattiest little old schooner came into its own. You could buy a pretty decent schooner for $6,000 or $7,000 before the rumrunning came in. Now they want twice that, if you can buy at all.

Many an old retired sailor, whose wisdom was all in canvas and the handling of a ship with sails, has been dug up out of his retirement to help man a rumrunner. It has been a great comeback. I talked with one old fellow of sixty-five who had gone ashore for good because he couldn’t compete with the boys on the steamers, and there was no more call for his cunning with canvas. He lived in simple poverty in a little village outside Halifax.

Now he is the mate of a three-masted tern schooner, making regular trips over the rum route, and he is getting not only mate’s pay but double pay as a bonus every trip. He has enough money to buy a pretty cottage to go home and die ashore. He has enough, in fact, as be pointed out himself, to get married on!

There is a sort of revival of the romance of the old privateering days in the game. The coast is filled with sailing ships as never in the last quarter century. All kinds of odd craft are making the winds work.

In the little cabin of one of the schooners I visited there were three shotguns hanging in racks upon the wall.

“What for?” I asked, “Shooting gulls?”

“Not them,” replied the skipper. “Those are for the preservation of law and order on the high seas. Those weapons are for the suppression of piracy. When we are lying in ‘rum row’ off the Jersey coast, every time a strange boat comes near, we man the bulwarks with those three guns, loaded with buckshot. There have been several cases of piracy – toughs from ashore coming aboard a helpless, honest ship and looting her cargo and her cash box.

“This trip I am exchanging those old double-barrelled guns for a set of modern pump guns that throw five charges of buckshot at a pretty good lick I’m told.”

One Halifax schooner master, by hard work all last year and the year before, had worked up a very decent business. He had amassed the overwhelming capital of $80,000. It is probable he never had a thousand dollars in the bank in the old days, though he toiled hard and dangerously at the fishing off the Banks. He risked his life and his ship in the most hazardous of callings for a very uncertain reward. Now he was rolling in wealth.

He made a trip down to Nassau and sunk the whole $80,000 in a cargo and brought it to the line-up of vessels off New York.

One of the “law-breakers” from shore came out – a big power boat – and he made his deal with a couple of foreigners.

They paid him in cash – $1,000 bills – the sum of $142,000.

And the skipper sailed tremulously for home. He took ballast at St. Pierre, and came to his home port in Nova Scotia. He was filled with dreams of founding a steamship business, of building a fine mansion, and living ashore for the rest of his life. As he sailed in the harbor he stood on deck picking a nice site for his future home.

When he plunked his fabulous fortune down In front of the teller in the bank, dazed with the thrill of it, he was the proudest sailor ever home from the sea.

The teller began to count the bills.

Then be stopped and fingered them.

A started look came into his face.

“What’s this?” he exclaimed. “Where’d you get this stuff?”

The $142,000 was all in counterfeit $1,000 bills.

The skipper was flat broke.

When two foreign gents arrived in Halifax some time later looking for a schooner to break into the game, some friends of the old skipper brought them to him.

Yes, he knew the ropes. He would willingly charter his ship and hire out as master of it.

“We’re from New York,” said the strangers. “The game is too crooked down there. It is all in the hands of one big gang. There is no profits for the little dealer. It all goes in graft. So we’ve come up here to break in from the outside.

Their plan was this: they would put supercargo of their own selection on board the schooner, and he would go with the ship to St. Pierre where a five-thousand-case cargo would be bought and delivered off New York to these men personally. A date was set. Another foreigner, of the gunman type, was introduced to the skipper, and he set sail.

The run to St. Pierre is only 400 miles from Halifax and can be made in three or four days’ fair sailing. But it was a bit rough. And the old skipper rolled that schooner through the trough all the way. The result was that the landlubber supercargo was a pretty dead specimen when they made St. Pierre.

He could hardly make the purchase, he was so upset. And when it came to getting aboard again for the long run to New York, he couldn’t be persuaded.

So the old skipper advised him to take steamer from St. Pierre to Halifax, and there the schooner would call and pick him up, so sparing him the worst part of the voyage.

The gunman, out of his element, with promises that his bosses would never find out, agreed.

But at Halifax he was as fearful of the next leg of the voyage for a storm was raging at sea and the skipper was determined to set sail.

So another arrangement was made, whereby the seasick supercargo could come aboard the schooner at New York a day before his bosses were to come aboard; and all would be well.

The skipper was such an honest old man!

He made the Ambrose Channel the evening the gunman was to meet him.

Presently, with the flashlamp signals arranged on, the unfaithful supercargo came alongside in a small launch, very sick and frightened.

“Beat It!” cried the skipper. “Your bosses came out last night and found us and took the cargo off. They are sure looking for your hide.”

Without a sound, the terrified gunman fled into the dark.

That same night, with his knowledge of the game, the old skipper found a buyer for the 5,000 cases in his hold among the small craft cruising out from shore. He got his money, $35 a case, $175,000, and he made dead certain that it was real money that time.

The following night, which was the first night agreed for the rendezvous, the two foreigners came aboard, vastly excited and delighted.

“What?” exclaimed the old skipper. “Here again!”

In moment pandemonium was loose on that schooner.

“Why,” said the skipper, “your supercargo went ashore to get you last night and came off about midnight with you, in a steel tug. Wasn’t it you? You don’t mean to say it wasn’t you?”

“Did they take the booze?” screamed the owners.

“You certainly did! Now don’t try pulling any tricks on me,” cried the old skipper.

And he bundled them off his ship.

They are probably still looking for that double crossing supercargo. And he is as faithfully avoiding them.

And the old skipper has his money back.

“Anyway,” he is reported to have said, “landlubbers haven’t any business in this sea-going trade.”

There are risks in the game. For one thing, no insurance can be got on either cargo or ship. Losses, when they occur, are heavy losses.

One man I talked to is a shipowner. Rumor has it that he is not missing the opportunity to invest circumspectly in the game.

He recently chartered a small two-hundred-ton steamer for one trip of about one month’s duration for $7,000. He further obtained from the man who chartered it (an American) a bond for $40,000, the value of the little vessel, to guarantee that it would break no laws or otherwise get into trouble.

That is a good rent, eh?

The Nova Scotia people generally, who have all the liquor they want despite their prohibition law, feel that Canada is missing a great opportunity to pay off the national debt in not going heartily into the rum-running game in large way.

But the rum-runners themselves complain that too many people are in the game already.

They are talking of the “good old days”. That’s a bad sign – for them.

By the good old days they mean a year ago, when a case off New York sold for $60.

And their hearts are further steeped in gloom with the news that the United States government is making an effort to have the British and French governments put the lid on St. Pierre and Nassau by requiring strict clearance papers in and out of all ports of call.

This will mean that rum-running will become a pure smuggling game, and cargoes from Europe will have to be transferred from big ships to little ships on the high seas.

And that’s a game only mariners can play.

And only the mariners are glad.

Editor’s Notes: There are a lot of prices listed here but $1 in 1923 equals about $15.80 in 2022. So, for example:

$60 = $950

$5,000 = $79,000

$42,000 = $663,000

$142,000 = $2,243,000