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San Juan Islands, Washington State, United States
A society formed in 2009 for the purpose of collecting, preserving, celebrating, and disseminating the maritime history of the San Juan Islands and northern Puget Sound area. Check this log for tales from out-of-print publications as well as from members and friends. There are circa 500, often long entries, on a broad range of maritime topics; there are search aids at the bottom of the log. Please ask for permission to use any photo posted on this site. Thank you.

07 June 2014


QUADRA on Rum Row
from the photo archives of S.P.H.S©
"Prohibition reigned for nearly 14 years after the Volstead Act was passed. Washington State suffered thirst four years longer because of a prohibition law of its own; effective 1 January 1916. The nation became wet again in December 1933.
      During the dry spell the Coast Guard [U.S.] employed a fleet of 22 vessels on Puget Sound alone to cope with rumrunners in nearby waters. The MALAHAT conducted business on a grand scale. She sailed long distances and prepared to lie offshore and serve the smaller craft delivering contraband liquor to dealers on the mainland. 
      Some idea of the mother ship's routine in rum running can be gained from the account of a ship's officer on one of the MALAHAT's companion vessels, the former lighthouse tender QUADRA. Built in 1891, she was a clipper type, 265 net ton craft with a 120-HP engine. George Winterburn, second engineer, writing in B. C. Magazine in 1957, stated that the supercargo, not the captain, was 'supreme boss" of the expedition. Preparations were made to remain four of five months on rum row. If the ship's stores ran short, launches would bring out from shore whatever was required.
      'We loaded up in Vancouver with 22,000 cases of choice liquors, wines, rums, and even a large quantity of beer which was all consigned to Ensenada in Mexico. Papers were arranged to show that we had been there, discharged our cargo and left again with a clear bill of health. This we had before we even left Vancouver. It was a clear, calm, moonlit night when we were proceeding down the Strait of Juan de Fuca toward the open sea when the engine-room telegraph rang down 'STOP.' This was a fine night for doing business and we did plenty of it. Several launches came off to us and upon presenting their credentials, consisting of one half of a one dollar bill that had to be matched with the other half that the supercargo kept, the order that was written on his half-bill was filled and away the man went to shore with his launch full of liquor.
      Before daylight we again got under way and did not stop until we were abreast of Astoria, where we conducted more business. It was here that we really sent a lot of liquor ashore, that no doubt found its way to the Portland market. It began to look as if our intended four months' voyage was going to be considerably shortened and we had been at sea barely a week. 
      We left Astoria for San Francisco where we took up our position just outside of the Farallon Islands, 50 miles offshore from the Golden Gate. It was here that a bad storm hit us, causing us to heave to for a whole week. It was too stormy for any boats to come off, so we could not do any business, nor could we run for shelter from the storm on account of the contraband. All we could do was 'sacking', which mean removing the liquor from the cases and sewing it up in sacks of 12, which were not only easier to handle, but were not quite so obvious to the curious. Finally the storm blew itself out and the weather got warm and balmy. Business was brisk and in no time we were left with only half the cargo.
      Two other ships in this vicinity were operating for the same company as they had both been in these waters a long time, it was decided that we would take the remainder of their cargoes, which gave us more than we started out with. Both of these ships were wooden schooners; one a three-master COAL HARBOR, the other a five-master called the MALAHAT. The latter, like ourselves, was also ex-government owned. 
      While working alongside the MALAHAT, due to a miscalculation in seamanship, we rammed her instead, but as she was built of stout British Columbia fir, it was quite resilient and suffered no damage except a few scratches. Our own ship suffered badly, but remained afloat, as the damage was above the waterline. Our bowsprit was snapped off like a matchstick and our graceful clipper bow stove in, leaving a gaping hole into which we stuffed mattresses to keep the seas out. But each time we dipped into a wave a few tons of water would get past the mattresses and slosh along the 'tween decks, flooding all the cabins.

      All hands had to help load the launches, even the lookout, and had he been kept on his job maybe this story might never have been written as this was the first big ship to be caught. We had drifted to within two miles of the Farallon Islands when a U. S. Coast Guard cutter came up with his bow gun trained on us. The gun was a 12-pounder, but when a person is looking down the wrong way the gun has the appearance of a 15-incher. He fired a warning shot at a launch that tried to slip away. That proved conclusively to use that he meant business and would not take a few cases of liquor to let us go. We later found out that he had received a bribe of $20,000 from our rival company to capture us.
      Our skipper protested the arrest on the grounds that we were more than an hour's steaming from the U. S. coast, that was at that time the recognized legal position of Rum Row. The protestations did no good. He ordered us to proceed to San Fran and, when our captain refused, he put a prize crew aboard and towed us in. But when the prize crew was being transferred back to the cutter on completion of the tow, all hands with the exception of the officer in charge had to be taken aboard in cargo nets. During the tow I secreted seven cases of whiskey down the double bottom tank in the engine room, then flooded it so that in case she should lose our cargo but get the ship back, we would at least have some fortification against melancholia or seasickness, but alas, we were taken ashore the next morning and I have never laid eyes on her since.
      She sank at her moorings in the bay and took with her my seven cases of whiskey.'
      The crew waited seven months in San Fran for the case to be tried, a proceeding that lasted four weeks. The supercargo, the captain, and two shore side agents were each sentenced to two years and fined $10,000 apiece. the two mates got 13 months and $1,000 fine. The chief engineer was penalized $500. All the rest were found not guilty and sent to Vancouver.
      The captain of the Coast Guard cutter was not so fortunate in another later case because of his acceptance of bribes. He lost his command and spent a year in jail for perjury, but managed to keep his $40,000 from the distilleries.
      An investigation completed in 1936 by the American government resulted in the five Canadian distilleries being forced to pay $3,500,000 in unpaid duties and revenue taxes.
      A reporter writing about another rum ship, the MOGUL, and the effort of its owners to dispose of her cargo after the repeal of prohibition, described the vessel's trip north. He said, 'She was handicapped in speed owing to the foulness of her bottom, occasioned by an 18 months accumulation of barnacles and sea grass.' The writer added, 'Her crew appear to be none the worse for their 13 months sojourn in Mexican waters and seemed to be quite pleased at their return. They say goodbye to what had almost become an institution. The calling had employed hundreds of seafarers since its inception some 15 years ago."
Above text by Lucile McDonald, for the June 1981 quarterly  journal The Sea Chest, published by the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society, Seattle WA.

1 comment:

  1. My grandfather worked on "Rum Row" at this time and made a short 8mm movie of some of this including the Malahat off the coast. I've posted this on youtube under Rum Running 1932. Here's the link
    He had many, many great stories to tell us as kids of his colourful life rum running and other adventures on the coast. Thanks for the interesting history.


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