History

The Queen of Vancouver, British Columbia's Rum Runners

Cruising through Prohibition History

By
Capt. Jeff
Werner

Imagine a five-masted wooden schooner hailing from British Columbia that hauled millions of feet of lumber to Australia in the final years of World War I. Carrying a cloud of sail, with a length overall of 246 feet, 44-foot beam and 21-foot draft, she sailed a stately 5 knots, perfect for the dressed lumber trade. During Prohibition, from 1920 to 1933, even at that speed working as a smuggler, she continually eluded the U.S. Coast Guard along the Pacific Coast. According to the Vancouver Maritime Museum, she delivered more contraband liquor than any other ship. Her name was Malahat, and she was given the moniker the Queen of Rum Row.

Prohibition in the United States made the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, and the importation thereof into the United States illegal, but the demand for alcohol never abated since drinking was still allowed. Prohibition began when the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution went into effect on January 16, 1920. During the Roaring Twenties, speakeasies, bathtub gin, bootlegging, Elliot Ness and the Untouchables became American legends in Chicago. Meanwhile on the Pacific Coast, enterprising Canadians were taking full advantage of the American thirst for Canadian whisky by rum running. Canadians were free to manufacture and export liquor as they wished. Their American customers took possession of these black-market goods offshore and then reentered U.S. territorial waters assuming all the risk, while the Canadians sailed away with a boatload of cash.

Bootlegging and rum running are terms for smuggling alcoholic beverages where their transportation is forbidden by law. The term rum running is more commonly associated with smuggling over water, while bootlegging refers to smuggling over land. It is believed that the term bootlegging originated during the American Civil War, when soldiers would sneak liquor into army camps by concealing pint bottles within their boots or beneath their trouser legs. The term rum running most likely originated when ships from Bimini in the western Bahamas transported cheap Caribbean rum to Florida speakeasies. Since cheap rum was a low-profit item for rum runners, they soon moved on to smuggling more expensive Canadian whisky. Canadian distillers and seafarers quickly realized that evading duties by moving liquor into the United States illegally had the potential to become a multi-million dollar industry.

During that era, a pro-temperance clergyman called Vancouver the city of refuge for all the whisky-soaks and booze artists of the whole hemisphere. Vancouver maintained an active illegal liquor trade with the United States throughout Prohibition. During that time, the city's longest-serving mayor followed an open town policy. Essentially, the rule was that vice crimes such as prostitution, gambling, bootlegging and rum running would be managed, rather than eliminated. Vancouver was the homeport of the schooner Malahat. That vessel could carry up to 84,000 cases of whisky in the hold plus 16,000 cases on deck. That cargo was loaded on in Vancouver and delivered to California once or twice per year. Malahat was just one of many large, slow floating warehouses that stood off the California coast at anchor just outside the 3-mile limit of U.S. jurisdiction. The 3-mile limit became known as the Rum Line and the ships waiting just beyond were called Rum Row. Smaller, faster contact boats then bought and off loaded the contraband liquor and ran it ashore. A case of whisky that cost $15 in Canada could be sold for $120 in San Diego. Some of the fast contact boats could reach speeds of 25 knots and easily outrun U.S. Coast Guard revenue cutters. These fast boats could quickly dock in small coves and transfer their booze to a waiting truck. The Rum Line was extended to a 12-mile limit by an act of Congress in 1924, which made it harder for the smaller and less seaworthy craft to make the trip.

Mother ships, like Malahat, were loaded offshore near Vancouver by intermediate size transfer vessels. After loading thousands of wooden liquor crates aboard the Malahat, the crew would uncrate the bottles and put a dozen of them into burlap sacks stiffened with slats from the crates. These sacks, more manageable than crates, would be transferred to the fast boats off San Francisco or Los Angeles to be brought ashore.In order for mother ships to evade the Coast Guard during their late-night loading process, ship-to-shore radio communication was essential. Coded shortwave radio messages between smuggling vessels and the homes of the smugglers in Vancouver were maintained. One young woman who helped operate the clandestine shortwave radio ashore was Hazel Stone, sister of Captain Stuart Stone of the Malahat. By day, Hazel worked downtown as a telephone operator. In the evening, she took the streetcar to the western end of the line and made her way to a house where she spent several hours transmitting instructions to the rum runners using their secret codes.

After Prohibition ended in 1933 Malahat returned to carrying lumber, but she couldn't make a financial success out of her old trade. Eventually her masts were removed and her capacious hull was turned into a log barge, bringing Sitka spruce logs to the sawmills. Malahat foundered in 1944 and was made into a breakwater, not an uncommon end for a sailing ship in those days, even one as notorious as Malahat.

Capt. Jeff Werner has been in the yachting industry for 25 years. In addition to working as a captain on private and charter yachts, both sail and power, he is a certified instructor for the USCG, US Sailing, RYA and the MCA. He is also the Diesel Doctor, helping to keep your yacht's fuel in optimal condition for peak performance. For more information, call 239-246-6810, or visit MyDieselDoctor.com. All Marinalife members receive a 10% discount on purchases of equipment, products and supplies from Diesel Doctor.

WHERE TO VISIT IN THE VANCOUVER, B.C. AREA

  • Vancouver Maritime Museum (1905 Ogden Ave. 604-257-8300)
  • Gastown Neighborhood National Historic Site (Northeast end of Downtown 604-682-3868)
  • Forbidden Vancouver Walking Tours (207 West Hastings St. 604-227-7570)
  • Stanley Park National Historic Site (Borders Downtown 604-681-6728)
  • Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden (578 Carrall St. 604-662-3207)
  • Burnaby Village Museum (6501 Deer Lake Ave. 604-297-4565)
  • Gulf of Georgia Cannery National Historic Site (12138 Fourth Ave. 604-664-9009
  • Britannia Shipyards National Historic Site (5180 Westwater Drive 604-238-8050)

WHERE TO DOCK

  • Coal Harbour Marina (1525 Coal Harbour Quay, 604-681-2628)
  • False Creek Yacht Club (1661 Granville St., 604-682-3292)
  • Sewell's Marina (6409 Bay St., 604-921-3474)

Capt. Jeff Werner has been in the yachting industry for over 25 years. In addition to working as a captain on private and charter yachts, both sail and power, he is a certified instructor for the USCG, US Sailing, RYA and the MCA. He is also the Diesel Doctor, helping to keep your yacht's fuel in optimal condition for peak performance. For more information, call 239-246-6810, or visit MyDieselDoctor.com. All Marinalife members receive a 10% discount on purchases of equipment, products and supplies from Diesel Doctor.

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Baskets Born of Necessity and Boredom

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basket - history - marinalife
Friendship basket purse made by José Formoso Reyes in 1950 | The Nantucket Historical Association[/caption]

The waters around Nantucket were well traversed and very treacherous. In Nantucket Sound, sandbars muddled traffic, so the U.S. government placed a lightship there in 1823 to help mark a safe path by the island along a popular commercial route between New York and Boston. It became known as the Cross Rip Lightship.

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It was lonely, too. I've read how life on a lightship was likened to a term of solitary confinement combined with the horrors of seasickness. It's no wonder these men began making baskets to while away the time.

Cross Rip Lightship - history - marinalife
Cross Rip Lightship on station, circa 1930s | The Nantucket Historical Association

According to several sources, it is likely a man named Thomas James introduced basketmaking to men on the lightships. James, the story goes, had worked in the whaling industry and during his voyages supposedly made baskets in his spare time. When he began working on the South Shoals Lightboat, he took up his old pastime while on duty and sold his work on leave in Nantucket town. It wasn't long before he taught his skill to his fellow lightship men.

Though the classic Nantucket basket is attributed to men aboard lightships in the mid-19th century, it's important to remember that its distinctive design was probably inspired by baskets originally woven with ash wood by the Wampanoags, the island's indigenous people.

Lighthouse baskets typically were round and built on a mold with flat wooden bottoms to which staves (ribs) were attached to form the basic shape. Cane, also known as rattan, was then woven in and around the staves from bottom to top. Each basket was finished with a wooden handle. Tops and decorative elements weren't added until later. These baskets became popular with locals and tourists and thus became known as Nantucket lightship baskets. They're very desirable today among collectors.

Basketmaking Enters the 20th Century

By 1905, the last man from Nantucket manned a local lightship. Shortly thereafter, the federal government banned basket-making aboard lightships to end moon-lighting commerce. The craft then moved on island where it was taken up by a new generation of basket weavers who began personalizing their work and looking for ways to make them stand out and appeal to the growing tourist trade.

Nantucket basket lamp - history - marinalife
The author and Nantucket basket lamp

One of the most significant of this new generation of basket makers was José Reyes, a Filipino with an Education degree from Harvard, who served in the U.S. Navy fighting the Japanese and then after the war immigrated to Nantucket where his wife's family had a home. Unable to find a job in education, he repaired cane furniture and learned to make Nantucket lighthouse style baskets.

Reyes is credited in 1948 for adding a top to the lightship basket and turning it into a purse for women. These purses, later known as friendship purses, quickly became de rigour for well-to-do summer residents. Reyes later included ivory carvings to adorn the purse tops. Rumor has it the name originated when a woman carrying one of Reyes' purses while visiting Paris noticed another woman with the same purse. She yelled out Friendship! and the two strangers became lifelong friends linked by their shared love of Nantucket.

Paul Whitten, another basket maker, helped elevate artistic appreciation for the Nantucket basket when he was invited in 1974 by the Smithsonian Institution's Renwick Gallery to submit one of his pieces in a national arts and crafts competition. His basket was selected to appear in the gallery and then tour the country with other competition winners as part of a traveling exhibit. Whitten's basket was purchased by the Smithsonian for its permanent collection. Whitten also wrote extensively about Nantucket baskets, which has been important to preserving the history of this unique craft.

Today the lightship basket influence can be seen in jewelry, cribs, bike baskets and all sorts of decorative pieces sold on and off island. Yours truly even owns a pair of tall handsome lamps modeled on the classic Nantucket Basket. There's even an auction market for exceptional baskets woven on Nantucket. A recent piece went for more than $100,000. Who'd have thunk it?

Nantucket Lighthouse Basket Museum

If you're visiting Nantucket and want to delve deeper into the history of these unique baskets and learn more about their makers, you won't want to miss the Nantucket Lighthouse Basket Museum. It features a permanent collection of baskets, special exhibits and basket weaving classes. The museum website also has a variety of fascinating videos, including an interview with noted basket weaver José Reyes.

Location: 96 Main St.,Nantucket, MA 02554

Hours: May 28 - October 17, open daily 10:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m.

nantucketlightshipbasketmuseum.org

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