It was the 1920s

Old/new story by June Morrall

It was the 1920s and Prohibition ruled. Anything having to do with alcohol was a federal crime.

On the Coastside they called it the “War Against Rumrunners,” the battle between Prohibition agents and the liquor smugglers that raged from Pacifica to Ano Nuevo. These were the front lines.

The “War Against Rumrunners” was waged mostly in the deep of night, those blue-black hours friendliest to the smuggler’s trade. Prohi agents were trained to snare their sworn enemies on the high seas. The goal was to prevent the illicit booze from reaching the isolated Coastside beaches, with whiskey bottles never arriving at roadhouses such as the Miramar Beach Inn, Moss Beach Distillery and Princeton–ultimately denying the patron–their thirst unquenched.

This was the blueprint in theory. But once the Prohibition agents confronted their prey in the field, the “war” seemed to devolve into a game of cat and mouse, or a deadly kind of hide-and-seek with roles uncertain, the blur of events often making it difficult to distinguish the good guys from the bad.

Confiscating illegal booze before it reached the consumer was the measure of success of the “War Against Rumrunners,” and this was how the agents kept score on their progress. It was one thing to talk about confiscation, but in reality it was a dangerous and often impossible task.

Anything and everything could go wrong.

One violent episode occurred on a moonless night off the coast of Half Moon Bay in the 1920s. The crew members of the smugglers’ vessel and the agents on the patrol boat found themselves close enough to peer into each other’s eyes.

After the shock of the encounter faded, both sides began firing their weapons. The volleys awakened the sleepy locals who later reported that it sounded like a naval battle. In a sense, that’s what it was.

Then the chase began. With the parol boat in pursuit, the rumrunning vessel headed north toward Moss Beach. When the chase was over, the agents boarded the smuggler’s vessel.

After a thorough search from stem to stern, Prohibition agents located and claimed the contraband—in this case, 400 cases of valuable liquid cargo.

The rum boat was identified as belonging to the “Stadacona,” a large “mother vessel” regularly carrying whiskey from Vancouver to points off the California coast.

Protocol required that the agents tow the smuggler’s boat to port, but before that was accomplished one official foolishly climbed back on the rum runner. At their first opportunity, several of the brazen smugglers wrestled him to the ground. At the same time they swiftly disposed of the evidence, casting hundreds of cases of illicit liquor into the sea. They then slashed the tow-line, making a fast, clean getaway.

The Prohibition agent knew he was in danger, and rather than running the risk o becoming a kidnap victim, he jumped overboard. Successfully reaching the patrol boat, he rejoined his fellow agents firing rifles, machine guns and a one pound cannon at the fleeing rumrunner.

But the smugglers were battle-tested. By not returning fire, they concealed their position, and under cover of darkness, easily outdistanced their pursuers.

The Prohibition agents believed they had seriously damaged the smuggler’s boat. Not until daylight, however, would they know for certain. When officials met that morning at Moss Beach to assess the situation, they observed the wreckage of the smuggler’s boat floating ashore.

This was a typical, unsuccessful attempt to apprehend the crafty rumrunners. The bad guys lost their cargo, and their ship, but they survived to sail another day.

Even when the government agents had totally smashed a smuggler, confiscating his cache, capturing or destroying his vessel, even arresting the rumrunner himself, they knew there would always be someone else willing to take the risk to smuggle the illegal booze.

As the “war” accelerated, government agents became more heavily armed, but this did not put a crimp in the illegal operations of the rumrunners or the bootleggers.

What did cause temporary logistical and scheduling problems was the closing of the San Mateo-Half Moon Bay Road for extensive repairs in 1924. This was a stroke of bad luck for the smugglers, who now had to get the word out that the usual number of landing places were no longer available.

[As a sidelight, there was also a rumor that Chester Howard, a former prohibition agent, had delegated himself a committee of one to intercept automobiles in which he believed liquor was being transported. This ex-dry agent said he did the work voluntarily because he had been accused of “hijacking” and “wanted to see what a hijacker looked like.” His comment perplexed the hijackers, but their instincts told them this man posed a danger.]

So far the war had been confined to the rumrunners. Now the San Mateo County District Attorney called a press conference to announce that he was not a bootleg chaser, nor did he intend to become one. But the D.A. revealed that he did support an intensive program designed to crack down on all offenders, expanding the scope of the war.

U.S. Treasury Department officials called their own press conference in San Francisco. Their agency was in charge of implementing Prohibition laws, and they announced that any person arrested for possession or sale of imported liquor was subject to prosecution under current smuggling laws. Anyone convicted faced a $5,000 fine and two years in the federal penitentiary.

Bootlegger entrepreneurs accustomed to furnishing their clients with Scotch whiskey and Champagne, considered themselves above the law, and were stunned by the government’s new draconian policies.

So were many private citizens who believed they were immune from punishment and boldly stocked imported, illicit liquor in their homes.

According to the authorities, they were now as guilty as those who directly engaged in the act of smuggling.

Now government agents were not only chasing smugglers on the high seas near Half Moon Bay–they were making unannounced visits to roadhouses suspected of serving liquor and arresting the owners if booze was found.

In 1923, a squadron of agents swooped down on three well known Coastside establishments. Perhaps the most famous of these was the gray “mystery castle,” a fortress-like structure overlooking Salada Beach in Pacifica.

Two years earlier, the castle had achieve notoriety as an illegal abortion clinic. After a sensational trial in Redwood City, the owner was convicted and imprisoned.

The castle’s beauty and spectacular location inspired new owners to reopen it as the “Chateau Lafayette,” a roadhouse with a dining room, dance floor and comfortable hotel accommodations.

Late one afternoon, several trench-coated government agents walked purposefully toward the Chateau’s front door. Outside, they reviewed their strategy before bursting into the dining room with guns raised.

One of the officers commanded the terrified diners to freeze as the others scoured the premises for illegal booze. Sixty bottles of wine and 25 bottles of whiskey were confiscated.

The agents also made an unusual find: a handcrafted wooden board, holding hundreds of small vials, each a one-ounce sample of a different kind of liquor. It was clear these roadhouses patrons were not drinking bathtub gin.

Flushed with success, the agents now headed for the Rockaway Grill in Pacifica. There they seized more liquor and placed the hapless owner under arrest.

On a roll, the officers piled into their late model automobile, motoring over steep Pedro Mountain Road, heading south for Montara and Half Moon Bay.

They careened around the hairpin turns until the road straightened-out, then pushing the pedal to the floor for maximum speed. The driver slammed on the brakes outside the Montara Family Club, an interesting name for a disguised roadhouse. Inside the club’s patrons milled about, and on San Francisco man was recognized from other drinking establishments.

The two brothers who owned the “club” were handcuffed and arrested.

One would think these Feds had accomplished enough, but instead of calling it a night,, they decided to return to Pacifica, specifically to re-check the Rockaway Grill raided just a few hours earlier. Just as they drove up to the entrance, two men, obviously patrons with hats pulled low over their foreheads, faded into the night. When officers kicked open the front door, they caught the owner’s brother trying to hide a bottle of whiskey.

These unannounced raids created some grumbling and a few roadhouse proprietors spoke out. One owner claimed the agents were treacherous. He said that after buying four cases of imported liquor from a Fed posing as a bootlegger, the agent stormed his tavern using those same four bottles as evidence to arrest him.

It was near the end, and the “War Against the Rumrunners,” was riddled with corruption.

As public indifference mounted, and citizens outdistanced the law, the “war” fizzled, coming to a final end with the repeal of Prohibition in 1932.

Some old-timers reminisced that Prohibition brought an economic boom, almost a “Golden Era” to the Coastside. With its end, the Coastside returned to its sleepy ways, not to be reawakened until WWII.
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New old story by June Morrall

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About June Morrall

1947 - 2010
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