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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.

25 April 2017


Federal prohibition chief Roy T. Lyle,
with part of a shipment of "salt fish" liquor
seized in a Seattle shed.
Scan from an original photo from the S.P.H.S.©

Rum Running Through the Islands

Recalled by Harry W. Patton

"Joe Patton was not a rumrunner, or a bootlegger. For a loss of exact descriptive words, I would describe him as a 'fringe facilitator.' He never did drive a rum boat in the dark of night, nor load or off load any booze.
      Soon after WW I ended, the use of alcoholic beverages increased markedly. On payday a large number of workers would shoot their paychecks on booze before they even got home. People felt that something should be done. Backed by many church groups, the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), a national amendment, the 18th Amendment was finally passed and was put into effect in 1920, prohibiting the distillation, importing or consumption of alcoholic beverages. This was the beginning of what is called the Prohibition period (1920-1933.)
      Many men were extremely put out about this situation and started to find ways around it. Some made gin in bathtubs that got to be known as 'bathtub gin.' Others brewed beer in huge vats in hidden warehouses. But those vats were often found and destroyed by the Feds. Some other source had to be determined.
      Canada was free from our Amendment 18. Many of our entrepreneurs quickly fell upon the idea of importing whiskey from Canada and soon midnight clandestine smugglers arrived with cases of whiskey at the border into the US. The border between the US and Canada is more than 3,000 miles long, most of it unpatrolled. Even so, the Feds, due to tips and payoffs, were able to intercept many of the transfers and much booze was apprehended and destroyed.
      The northwest bootleggers then decided to go to 'Plan B.' Why not bring the whiskey by boat, on black nights, down Rosario Strait and through the San Juans, drop it off on the dark shores, south of Anacortes and points south. The shore was very thinly populated during that period. The Revenuers wouldn't be able to see them in the dark or fog, and radar had not been invented yet.

      Roy Olmstead, according to Norm Blanchard, has been described as the leader, and most instrumental person setting up this seagoing rum running scheme. He recruited a group of nefarious, but opportunistic, willing, experienced boat handlers. Then he located several existing boats and put them into operations from Canada to the US. His movements south were so successful that he realized he needed more boats. And faster boats, as the slow ones were being apprehended.
      Olmstead allegedly approached Joe Patton's good friend, N. J. Blanchard Sr, and placed orders for several new high speed boats. Money wasn't flowing in the boat building business in the mid '20s, and certainly not following the Depression. It was legal for a buyer to purchase a boat, even though the government knew it probably would be used for rum running. Anyone with money could buy a boat even though it might be used later for nefarious purposes. There was no proof of that. The Feds could watch it being built, but could not attach the vessel. They had to let it be driven up to Canada, and then search for the loaded boat when it returned south, in the dark of night at high speed, into the US waters, to deliver the booze. Olmstead paid N. J. in cash; nothing illegal about any of the operation.
      Olmstead was in business. Patton and N. J. could feed their families...
      On a hot summer morning in June, c. 1928, Dad got a phone call from N. J. Dad said to me, 'Blanchard has one of his new boats out in Lake Union for a test run. It's got one of my engines in it. Test about to be finished, I'd like to see how it performs, would you like to come with me over to the east Queen Anne look-out bluff and see the demonstration?'
      I was pretty young at the time, so didn't know too much about boats. This one was painted black, narrow, c. 20-22' high-chine, enormous open runabout, with a covered foredeck. Certainly not good looking, compared to the beautiful, varnished mahogany Gar-Wood high-speed runabout loaned to my dad. But it was going like hell, and fun to watch! Full Bore! I said, 'Dad, it is sure a a funny looking boat. Why doesn't it look like a Gar-Wood?' He said, 'Well, the buyer just wants it to be this way––cheaper.'
      How many runners did N. J. build? We can find no records. Norm Jr relates, and we quote: 'During the mid 1920s Dad built four runners. I'm sure that he made good money on them. I remember the last one was just one enormous open runabout. All those places on the water were just naturals to get involved in bootlegging because you could always find a way to offload the booze at night. Every cabbie in town knew that for the right price, a customer could get a bottle of bootleg whiskey at the Seattle YC. It's funny, but I didn't find out until years later that dad provided bootleg boats all through Prohibition. I remember once that dad took the family in the car out to a new housing development, that had a lot of little colored flags flying everywhere. Dad parked at the sales office and a dapper gentleman came out and greeted him like an old friend. Well, this dapper gentleman was none other than Roy Olmstead, the biggest bootlegger in the whole PNW. Years later I asked my cousin, 'Do you think my father was a bootlegger?' 'Hell, yes,' she said, 'What do you think kept the doors open at the Blanchard Boat Company during the Depression?'

      (H.W.P.): I really don't like to hear N. J. labelled as a bootlegger. It's not an accurate description of him. Bootlegging connotes moving and delivering the booze. N. J. was, as I suggested, a facilitator, like Joe Patton, just building boats, but not operating them. Nothing illegal. I knew him very well.
Bill Boyer owned and managed the resort on Orcas Island, from 1920 until 1944. In those days Doe Bay was a quiet, unobtrusive little hamlet, with a County Dock, a Post Office, and small string of floats for visiting boats. The OSAGE, a small steamer, used to depart Bellingham at 6:30 A.M., headed west, stopping to drop mail and supplies at Sinclair, Doe Bay, Olga, Eastsound, Deer Harbor and Friday Harbor. Then in the afternoon, make the trip back. We lived in a log cabin. In the early days, at 8:00 AM, Mother would hand me 25 cents, 15 for milk, and 10 for bread, and send me down the trail to Doe Bay, to await the OSAGE. 
The steamer OSAGE,
Launched on Decatur Island in 1930.
      After many years of hard work and little income Dad finally finished his wooden 38-ft cruiser, BARNACLE. During the depression, N. J. didn't have much boatbuilding work, and this allowed Dad to fabricate the BARNACLE on his ways. He did most of the work himself, but occasionally out-of-work Blanchard employees, and Norm Jr, would help him, no charge, just to keep their talented hands on. The boat was launched in 1932. My mother christened it with a bottle of champagne provided by Roy Olmstead.
      Now, having the BARNACLE, my dad, Joe, every year entered the International Predicted Log Constant Speed cruiser race from Seattle to Nanaimo, BC (1933-1938.) Heading back to Seattle we always stopped and moored to the floats overnight at the Doe Bay Resort, and talk with friend Bill Boyer.
      Also, to check Dad's nearby Vista del Mar Orcas beach front property. My grandfather, Harry W. Patton, (the 'Major') was managing editor of the Bellingham daily paper (1904-1910.) Vista del Mar contained some 36 acres, and 2,000 feet of waterfront. 
Coast of Orcas Island, San Juan Archipelago. 
Photo by James McCormick, an early photographer working 
in San Juan County, and often on Orcas Island.
Low res scan of an original from the archives of the S.P.H.S.©
      The jewel in this stark stone beachfront is a wonderful 90-ft long protected beach, composed of small gravel, nestled neatly between two long high bedrock fingers, that point straight out, that restrict visibility and provide privacy. Patton Cove––yes, Patton Cove. About 15-ft up is a natural spring fresh water outlet. 
      Dad took me with him from the boat, tied to the float, up to talk several times, several years (1933-1936) with Bill Boyer. He gave me a nickel for Crackerjacks. 
      Bill: 'Joe, we're talking 1920 to 1932, I can't recall, year by year, but prolly starting in the area of 1922, cause they had to get in business really soon. Rumor had it that the runners had started to sped south from BC on dark nights. Some black nights I could hear the high speed boats, prolly runners, and occasionally the Revenuers, way out in the Strait, and sometimes 'tween the Middle Pod and the south Pod, really charging, with no lights on. Couldn't see 'em. Occasional gun fire!'
      Bellingham papers continually reported runner hide-out stop points en route had been hard to find, and the Feds were becoming frustrated. Suddenly, the Revvies reported that they found the runners had occasionally, while en route south, been found hidden in narrow inlets on Patos Island, Active Cove on the west, and Toe Inlet, a perfect hideout, on the east. Several shootouts and confiscations had occurred.
      'Forced out, the runners then decided to hide in inlets on Sucia Island. Echo Bay was too large and hard to escape from, but Fossil Bay was more narrow, secluded. Also, an inlet on Matia. The Revenuers closed in and they got caught. No use, Clark and Barnes, have no inlets and also too close to Matia. So, what next safe haven could they find? 
      Bill continues: 'How about down the east coast of Orcas?
      One sunny day a friendly boat crew came up to my store from the floats, with a jug of Canadian whiskey, very friendly, and waited to talk. One look at the boat and I know what it was designed for. We both knew what was going on, and talked without beating around the bush. We could talk freely as Doe Bay is way out in the boonies, and no one to bother us.
Rum runner Roy Olmstead and wife Elsie.
He was brought down with wiretapping of his 
home phone & phones of his conspirators,
in 1924. He fought the charges all the way to
the US Supreme Court, but lost. He did earn 
a pardon from President Roosevelt.
He is seen here being released from prison in 1931.

Scan of an original from the archives of S.P.H.S.©
      The driver said he was working for Roy. We all knew who Roy was, as his name had been in the papers as a suspect. We all knew what the program was; getting booze from Canada down into the U.S. He pointed out that many runners had been caught and cargoes confiscated, and that wasn't making Roy any money, not satisfying the distributors down in Seattle. And, especially, the thirsty customers. He had to come up with a new, workable plan of operations. Soon.
      He sounded me out for a long time, asking me many questions. He had to be very careful. Finally, he figured he could trust me. He had a plan and hoped I would help him with it.
      He said they had located a small cove about a mile north of here. I told him that was the Joe Patton property. That Major Patton used to bring his wife, and children over for a coupla weeks in the summer time, but it has been abandoned since 1914, so you could all go down to the University. The War came and no one has been back since.
      He said his crews had started using it as a stop point and hiding place. To keep from losing booze from each apprehended boat, and cut their losses, the boss would send a big 22-footer, fully loaded, quickly to your cove, unload everything and stash it in the thick underbrush and Devil's Club, then race back north. If apprehended, the revenuers would find an empty boat and have to release them.
      On the next dark night a single runner would go to your cove, load half of the cases, and race south to the offload point. On the next dark night a second boat would pick up the remaining cases and head south. Being lighter, each boat could move faster. 
      He asked if I thought you would blow the whistle on him, and I said no, you never come up here, and wouldn't know anything about the operation anyway. We don't write letters, only Christmas cards.
      He said if I heard any rumors about his operation would I go to the cove and leave a note hidden under a big rock, next to the spring? He would make it worth my while, and he certainly did!
      About a month later a big black limousine pulled up in front of my store. Two men in black suits got out and said they were federal agents, and did I know where the Patton place was. I said I wasn't sure as I had just arrived and purchased the store in 1920, two years ago, and have never seen any Pattons. But I had heard, I think, from some of the locals, that it was back in the direction they had come from, way back toward Olga. They jumped in their car and quickly drove off––toward Olga [on Orcas Island]...
      It was almost dark. I jumped in my leaky 16-ft boat, started the old five-HP outboard, and headed north, trying to stay out of the kelp. Coming very quickly into the cove, I saw a runner boat pulled up on the beach. Surprised, two men stood up and grabbed their rifles. The driver recognized me and said, 'It's OK, that's Boyer!'
      Bill continues, I told them about the Feds in the big black car, and suggested they get the hell out! They were pretty scared! The two quickly grabbed the hidden cases of hootch, scratching their hands badly on the Devil's Club, and loaded them into the speedboat. They handed me two bottles of Canadian whiskey, said thanks, started the engine and raced out into the darkening evening, full speed!I never saw them again."
      As far as I know, Boyer never knew that Dad's friend, N. J. had built those rum running boats, and that Dad had provided the engines. And, of course, at that time, neither did I. Everything was on the Q.T." 
Kindly submitted to the Saltwater People Log by Harry W. Patton, Orcas Island, WA.
The Blanchard Boat Co is mentioned throughout this Log. Here is a chapter from Knee Deep in Shavings written by Norman C. Blanchard, the son of the founder of the yard, "Cruising in the San Juan Islands with a Shell Motor Oil Road Map." 





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