The Prohibition Era and Rum Running

Submitted by Devonna Edwards

The Temperance Movement brought about prohibition. Temperance members wanted to bring about the total abolishment of the “Evil Alcohol”. They believed that drinking alcohol beverages caused most of society’s bad behaviour.


Prince Edward Island established prohibition in 1901. In 1910 the Nova Scotia Temperance Act was passed, it enforced Prohibition over all of Nova Scotia except the City of Halifax. Halifax didn’t come under the Act until 1916. During World War 1 (1914-1918) liquor beverages could be legally produced in Canada (but not sold there) and legally exported out of Canadian ports. In March 1918 the government of Canada introduced legislation ending legal importation of liquor, manufacturing it, and transporting it to any area of the country where its sale was illegal.

All provinces of Canada, the Yukon and the Dominion of Newfoundland (they didn’t join confederation until 1949) passed prohibition laws on alcoholic beverages. Quebec and British Columbia were the first to abandon Prohibition preferring to regulate and have the government control liquor sales. Quebec repealed Prohibition in 1919 and British Columbia in 1921. A doctor’s note was the only exception to the law, than liquor could be purchased at a pharmacy for
medicinal purposes.

In December 1919, the Canadian Federal Government repealed its war-time plans and strong alcohol beverages could again move along the trade routes across provincial boundaries. In the United States, the Volstead Act went into effect in January 1920 and placed a ban on the manufacture, sale and transportation of all intoxicating beverages. Both Canada and the United States individually declared war on the rum runners during the 1920s but the “Demon Rum” won the battle in the end.


In the 1920s fishermen from the Maritime Provinces could no longer make a living fishing due to over-supply and poor prices, so most took their vessels and became involved in the rum-running trade to support their families. For years Nova Scotia was the centre for liquor traffic; Halifax, Lunenburg and Yarmouth were the three large ports in mainland Nova Scotia during the rum running era. The liquor came to these ports and left there by boat, sea plane, automobile, trucks, horse and wagon or by rail, where it was shipped as cargoes of fish or lumber.

In 1925 large cargos of contraband liquor landed at the North West Arm and the Bedford Basin, where rum runner headquarters were established. The south shore of Nova Scotia has hundreds of islands off shore which made it a perfect place for the rum-runners because they could hide their boats and liquor in one of their many coves.

St. Pierre and Miquelon were French owned islands off the southwest coast of Newfoundland coast and that was where most of the liquor was shipped from, especially whisky. The liquor was imported from Europe, the Caribbean and Canada. The island warehouses were supplied with West Indies rum, French Champagne, British gin and Canadian Whiskey, all waiting for the rum runners to distribute their precious load. The islands dock was often crowded with up to 40 or more vessels waiting to fill their hulls with liquor.

The liquor load was transferred from St. Pierre into the rum runner’s boat, or the load was taken from a larger ship anchored nearby. The authorities could not arrest the captain or crew from these larger ships because the ships were docked outside a twelve mile limit (later it was changed to three). The smugglers also used seaplanes to help with their cause. Small fast boats then would take the liquor, usually under the cover of darkness to shore, where horse and wagon, cars or trucks would immediately transport it to various locations. The back seats of cars were removed and the interiors were filled with as much liquor as they would hold. The cars had to be fast to out-run the custom officers who lie in wait for them most nights and gun shots could be heard on numerous occasions.


In 1925 smugglers were so numerous, that they were actually in each-others way. Rum running was extremely dangerous work, both on the sea and the land. The runners had to be creative in order to outrun the coast guard cutters, the police and the hijackers, sometimes while being peppered with bullets.

One famous rum runner schooner called “I’M ALONE” was built for a Boston man, who was serving time in jail at the time. He named his boat “I’M ALONE” because after breaking away from a run running gang, he wanted people to know that he was working alone. The ship was described as having the best quality workmanship. It was 125 feet long and 27 feet wide with twin hundred-horse power diesel engines.

The schooner was sold in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia in September 1928 by Jamie Clark who was representing two New York bootleggers. Thomas Randall, a Newfoundlander, was hired to be the Captain. In March 1929 when, at the end of a rum running trip to Louisiana, the schooner was chased by the cutter “Walcott” and Captain Randall was ordered to stop which he ignored. Randall continued to head for a destination off the Mexican coast. Another cutter called the “Dexter” now was chasing the rum runner and when Randall continued to disobey orders to stop, the Dexter opened fire and sent 20 rounds through the rigging, sails and hull of the Schooner.

After the Randall still refused to stop the Dexter sent 60 to 70 shots into the ship, breaking windows and blowing the engines to pieces. Surprisingly none of the crew was injured but the ship was flooding quickly and domed to sink. The captain and crew jumped overboard and were picked up by the cutter while the schooner “I’M ALONE” sank below the waves. One crew member of the schooner, named Leon Mainguy drowned when the ship sank. The captain and crew were taken to the Custom House at New Orleans where they were imprisoned but later released.

The “Silver Arrow” was another run-runner, described as a small boat only 40 feet long. In 1933, the crew were unloading liquor, close to shore, just outside the Lunenburg Harbour, when a coast guard cutter approached. A Canadian agent named “Machine Gun” Kelly blasted the “Silver Arrow” with his machine gun. Billie Tanner was shot in the head and died immediately. The rum-runner was seized and hauled into Lunenburg.

Rumrunning boats were built, repaired and supplied here in Nova Scotia. New York gang leaders came here to purchase their vessels. Americans maintained agents and contact men in Halifax to organize the rum-running activities and a few key mobsters visited Halifax and St. Pierre to check on their operation. Well known mobster, Al Capone was rumoured to visited different cities in Canada as well as St. Pierre. Dutch Shultz, another gangster, visited Halifax and stayed at a rooming house on Argyle Street.

In 1925, the Canadian Protective Service of the Customs and Excise Department distributed fifteen patrol vessels to cover the Atlantic coast and the St. Lawrence River. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police took over this duty in 1932. The Coast Guard ships had only powerful searchlights to help them spot the rum runner’s boats, as there were no radars then. The Coast Guards were also equipped with a machine gun mounted on the bow of their boat. The rum-runners had fast boats to their advantage and when the Coast Guards came too close they would create smokescreens hiding their boats, enabling them to escape.

In 1927 several new rum-chaser boats were brought in to help the cause. Two of the boat called the “Behave” and the “Beebe” were unloaded in the Halifax Harbour from flat cars at Deep Water and taken to the Dockyard where they were moved to the King’s Wharf. These new boats had a speed of thirty-eight miles per hour and had larger fuel tanks. They also had mounted machine guns on their bow.

Several of the new fast crafts were stationed at posts along the coast. The Bay of Fundy got three additional boats to guard the coast. Five sub-stations: Ingramport, Chester, Barrington, Canso and Pictou each were equipped with a new rum-chaser. Plans at that time were underway for an additional fleet for Cape Breton.

In September 1926 Authorities raided a place in Tantallon and confiscated a large quantity of smuggled liquor hidden by the rum runners. They moved the liquor to Smith’s barn in Glenhaven and two Customs Officers by the name of John O’Neil and John Flemming were left to guard the booze, until the Royal Canadian Mounted Police could pick up the cargo the next morning. Shortly after midnight, “Wild Archie” McLellan, a Glace Bay boxer and his gang of fifteen rum runners decided to regain their confiscated liquor.

The Customs Officers were hopelessly out numbered. The rum runners opened fire on the barn, keeping open a barrage for upwards of half an hour. The firing was so heavy, about 50 shells were found around the barn the next morning. The Customs Officers had only one gun and were powerless to meet the attack. Finally the Customs men were forced to seek shelter under the hay when the door to the barn was broken open by one of the raiders. At least fourteen kegs of rum were taken by the gang.

In order to prevent the Customs Officers from getting help from the authorities in Halifax, telephone lines were cut and attempts were made so that the Customs men could not use their cars. It took some time before the city was notified and the Mounties arrived to help, but by that time “Wild Archie” and his gang of rum runners, along with their booze were not to be found, even after an extensive search of the area. Miraculously no one was injured or killed during the gun battle.

Not long after the brazen attack at the Smith’s barn, the smugglers goods were once again seized by the Mounties near the properties of the Dauphinee family of Glen Haven. The liquor was found in two different locations. The first cache was found about 40 feet from the fence between the Dauphinee’s in a cleverly concealed tunnel, which was camouflaged with growing soil over the board plank trap door. The second cache was even larger than the first and was found about 100 feet from the fence. This dug out was concealed by some growing brush which had been pulled out of the ground and thrown over the trap door. The liquor was then brought into the city of Halifax late at night in motor transports and was placed in the Customs House.

After that incident, a reign of terror existed in the small villages around the area. The villagers were divided, some were tired of the rum smuggling happening in the community and wanted to help the Customs Officers stop the activity, while others were against telling authorities anything and shouted, “There ain’t going to be any squealers living here!” The villagers expected that blood would flow, so strong was the division. Former friends became bitter enemies. People of the shore village were afraid to tell of the smuggler’s activities, because they were threatened that their house would be burnt down.

Blind Pigs and Speakeasies

There were many unlawful drinking establishments in Halifax during the prohibition era. These illegal places were fortified to make it harder for officers of the law to gain admittance.

In March 1927 on the premises of 100 Lower Water Street, Officers Collins and White were unable to batter down the strongly reinforced and heavy barred door leading to the main entrance of the house. The officers had to break down a portion of the wall when they went to arrest the occupant on a bootlegging charge.

In 1952, an “Old Rum Fortress” at 113 Market Street was condemned and ordered to be demolished by the City Health officials. The old house had metal-lined walls and metal sheathed hatches and shutters, metal-buttressed doorways and even the stairways were lined with metal. All the metal in the house kept the police at bay but sure posed quite a demolition problem for the wrecking crews.


At 22 Dresden Row, another old bootlegger’s house being demolished was found to have steel bars and sheathing of sheet metal in the walls making it difficult for the crew. The bootleggers had very clever ways to hide their liquor.

In the 1930s a house on Water Street was in the process of being demolished when the crew found a sink inside the front door. A hidden pipeline ran through the house, up a backyard hill and into another house on Hollis Street. The bootlegger on Water Street could turn a tap on and rum would come down the pipe from Hollis Street and into a container in the sink. But he could also shut it off and turn another valve which produced only water.

In 1934 members of the police force entered a house at 296 Upper Water Street after being notified that unlawful liquor was being stored there. While searching one room, they removed a mirror on the wall and located a hide of five gallons of rum and arrested “Red” McDonald.

A bootlegger’s house would always have a man at an upstairs window, watching for either the police or customers. When he spotted a customer he would release a bolt on the entry door below for the customer to enter. When he spotted the police, warning was given to the other bootleggers to dispose of the liquor or hide it. Sometimes they used secret panels and partitions often operated by systems of pulleys and weights to hide their stock.

Fairview had their own Speakeasies through the years, the top and near the bottom of Main Avenue were popular bootlegger establishments. My brother John (Nonnie) O’Brien told me a story of a police raid that happened in the 1950s, near the bottom of Main Avenue. Nonnie and his young friends were watching the incident, while sitting on the grass across the street from the raid. The police were tipped off that a recent liquor delivery had been made. The police searched the property extensively for the cargo but nothing could be found. They finally left empty handed. The bootleggers had an ingenious hiding spot, “the booze was hidden under a false floor in the outhouse”.-

On December 5, 1933 prohibition came to an end in the United States. Nova Scotia voted against prohibition on October 31, 1929 and The Liquor Control Act in 1930 brought an end to prohibition but the rum-running years continued well after World War 11, although liquor smuggling was not as frequent. The first liquor stores in Nova Scotia were opened on August 18, 1930, with three in Halifax and one in Dartmouth.


The Seahorse Tavern was the first tavern in Halifax to be licensed and opened after prohibition in 1948. The tavern originally opened on Argyle Street where it remained in operation until 2014, when the facility moved to Gottingen Street.