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A Toast to West Coast Rum Running

Updated: Sep 19, 2019



Between the sea and the shore, rum- running vessels scattered the west coast of Canada in the early 1900s. They left their mark on history through their involvement in the American Prohibition (1920-1933) and the Canadian War Measures Act (1914), both of which involved the illegalization of alcohol. While many Canadian ships were implicated in rum running during these periods, one particularly notable vessel includes the five-masted schooner, The Malahat. Even though alcohol smuggling no longer exists under the name of “rum running”, it is still a prevalent issue in today’s times.

Foremost, by definition, “rum running” refers to “the illegal business of transporting alcohol where it is otherwise banned”. Another similar term includes “bootlegging”, which refers to the smuggling of alcohol over land, whereas “rum rumming” refers to overseas. The term began to appear during the American Prohibition in 1920, when the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages were made constitutionally illegal in all states. Similarly, from 1918-1920, under the War Measures Act of World War One, alcohol was illegalized in all Canadian provinces. Both of these events had an impact on Canada’s involvement in rum running, whether it was to import or export illegal alcohol.

At the beginning, rum running was a small affair. The boats used for smuggling were mere excursion, merchant, and fishing boats. However, as the demand for alcohol grew higher, the technology needed for smuggling grew progressively more advanced. As such, custom-made rum running boats became essential. Cargo boats had low hulls for large-scale storage and hidden compartments for precious merchandise. Some boats were even equipped with wireless technology. Furthermore, the boats used for ship-to-shore drop-offs were equally well equipped and had high-speed engines for quick exchanges. These ship-to-shore vessels, such as yachts and speedboats, were even prepared with plated hulls and machine guns in case of an encounter with the government’s coast guard, or “rum-chasers”. The crews of these vessels took enormous risks, such as, travelling with no lights in foggy conditions. But the rewards were high, and a rum running captain could easily make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

Considering that the Canadian prohibition ended when the American prohibition began, Canada, particularly the west coast, had an important role to play in providing Americans with alcohol. Boats from Victoria and Vancouver, as well as from other coastal communities, would make deliveries to the west coast of the U.S, such as in Washington and California. In fact, during the time of the American Prohibition, the west coast of the U.S was referred to as “Rum Row”, due to the large amount of Canadian boats that would “line up” on the coast, waiting to deliver enormous quantities of illegal alcohol. The alcohol that was collected at the border would then be transported across the rest of the country, satisfying the nation’s thirsty desires.

A prominent Canadian rum-running vessel during the American prohibition was The Malahat. This 5-masted, Mabel class schooner was built as a lumber schooner in Victoria, BC in 1917. Before her engines could even be installed, she was hastened into military service towards the end of World War One. It was not until the beginning of the Prohibition in 1920 that she worked as a rum running vessel. With a length of two hundred and forty six feet and an average speed of 5 knots, she could carry over one hundred thousand cases of Canadian alcohol in a single voyage. This “floating warehouse” is infamously remembered as the “Queen of the Rum Row” as she sailed the Pacific Coast for an entire thirteen years, delivering alcohol to the American coast and Hawaii. Considering the short career of most rum-running vessels, it is a mystery how she stayed in service for such a long period of time. Stories say that the captain’s sister would receive radio transmissions from coastal vessels pinpointing the location of the coast guard, or “coasties”. When the prohibition ended in 1933, The Malahat ended her career as a rumrunner and returned to her roots, thus becoming a lumber schooner. She carried lumber until her end in 1944 when she foundered in Barkley Sound and finally sunk in Powell River.

Although there is no longer a prohibition in either Canada or the United States, alcohol smuggling is a prevalent concern even today. Even though the term “rum running” has long since been forgotten, the concept remains the same. It exists for various reasons, whether that is to avoid minimum purchase prices and taxes, or to smuggle certain types of illegal alcohols into countries or states. In Canada alone, financial losses can equal up to eight hundred million Canadian dollars a year.

In conclusion, rum running, despite being an illegal act, has contributed enormously to our coastal heritage. From the early days of the prohibition to modern times, it is a unique perceptive into our nation’s past and future. May we all give a toast to Canada’s rumrunners.

Written by M. Nikolin

Bibliography

  • “Alcohol Smuggling Archives - Page 5 of 7.” Havocscope, 20 Aug. 2009, www.havocscope.com/tag/alcohol-smuggling/page/5/.

  • Henry, Tom. Westcoasters: the Boats That Built British Columbia. Harbour Pub., 2001.

  • “Malahat (Schooner).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 3 July 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malahat_(schooner).

  • O'Hara, Katy. “The Daring and Dangerous World of Prohibition Rum Running.” Overcup Press Books - Books Focused on Art, Travel, Music, 17 Aug. 2016, overcupbooks.com/blogs/the-field-guide-to-drinking-in-america/the-daring-and-dangerous-world-of-prohibition-rum-running.

  • “Rum-Running.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 7 Aug. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rum-running.

  • “Rum-Running.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 7 Aug. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rum-running.

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