Rum Running Between Amendments
Boatloads of smugglers signaled with pocket torches. A blue light flashed once and then twice.”all was clear.” A large sheet on a clothesline meant “run, police!”
On August 11, 1921, shipments of beer and liquor from Canada to the United States became legal. This opened up a glittering world of rum running, roustabouts, and riches for the ordinary people of Ecorse, Michigan.
Immediately, three Ecorse workers took their savings and traveled to Montreal, Canada, where the sale of liquor was legal. The workers bought 25 cases of whiskey and drove back to Windsor. They rowed a small boat back and forth across the river until all of their treasure was ferried to the American side. They posted a lookout for Canadian and American customs officials just in case, but all went well. They sold their liquor in Ecorse and used their profits to finance a second and third trip.
The Detroit River, a Hooch Highway
Historians estimate that during the 1920s and 1930s about 75 percent of the illegal liquor brought into the United States during Prohibition came through the Detroit River corridor. Small communities like River Rouge, Ecorse, Wyandotte and Trenton are strung out like beads along the river from Detroit to Toledo, Ohio. Their geography encouraged rum running because of their location on the Detroit River with Canada only a mile across the water.
The United States enacted Prohibition as law in 1920 by passing the 18th Amendment to the Constitution and another amendment, the 21st, didn’t repeal it until 1933. The twelve years between amendments were lawless ones for the country in general and for the communities along the Detroit River in particular. Ecorse participated as enthusiastically as the other communities.
Downriver Communities Like Ecorse Ride Along
Rum running boats by the dozen were moored each day at the Ecorse municipal dock at the foot of State Street (now Southfield), which ran through the village’s central business district. Rum runners transferred their cargoes to waiting cars and trucks, while residents, police and officials watched. Officials erected a board fence to protect the waterfront but rum runners went around or beneath it. Some Canadian breweries set up export docks on the shore just outside of LaSalle, Ontario, which is directly across the Detroit River from Ecorse. Fighting Island, situated in the middle of the river between Ecorse and LaSalle conveniently hid rum runners from police patrols.
In the early rum running days, the atmosphere on the river resembled a 24-hour party. Women participated with men in the rum running and the person in the next boat could be a local councilman or the school drama teacher. Boat
owners could transport as many as 2,500 cases of liquor each month at a net profit of $25,000 with the owner earning about $10,000. Some rum runners made 800 percent profit on a load of liquor. The only real perils of the sea that the rum runners encountered during those first years were losing directions in the middle of the river at night and collisions with other boats.
In the winter the river often froze solid and the rum runners took advantage of the ice road. They used iceboats, sleds and cars to transport liquor from the Canadian side to Ecorse. Convoys of cars from Canada crossed the ice daily. Cars on the American shore lined up at night and turned on the headlights to provide an illuminated expressway across the ice.
The Battle of Hogan's Alley
A prolonged cold spell in January and February of 1930 produced thick and inviting ice on Upper Lake Erie and the Detroit River. Hundreds of tire tracks marked the ice trail from the Canadian docks to the American shore. On a February morning in 1930, a Detroit News reporter counted 75 cars leaving the Amherstburg beer docks. He wrote that ten carried Ohio license plates and headed down river for south and east points on the Ohio shore. Others drove to the Canadian side of Grosse Ile. When the cars arrived on Grosse Ile, the liquor was loaded into camouflaged trucks and driven across the toll bridge
to the American mainland.
Prohibition stimulated the mushroom growth of crime and criminal gangs and syndicates became interwoven in the national fabric of America. Hogan’s Alley in Ecorse was a small example of national crime and a small side street comprised of a row of dimly lighted shacks sometimes used as private bars that were called “blind pigs.” Only smugglers and select guests who knew the pass word were admitted to Hogan’s Alley. Once inside Hogan’s Alley sights to be enjoyed included young men wearing fancy clothes and diamond rings in imitation of Al Capone, piles of money changing hands, and countless cocktails disappearing down thirsty throats.
A Wild West style battle between law and order and the rumrunners and their defenders took place in 1928 in Hogan’s Alley. Several cars and three boats holding about 30 Customs Border Patrol inspectors gathered at the end of Hogan’s Alley at the foot of State Street (Southfield) to wait in ambush for the rum runners. Rum running boats pulled up to a nearby pier and the agents rushed them and arrested the seven crew members.
Hogans Alley and Prohibition Defeated
As soon as they were arrested, the crew of the boat yelled for help. Rescuers rushed from all around. Over 200 people arrived to stop the agents from leaving with the prisoners. The people attacked the customs agents’ cars,slashing tires and breaking windshields. They pushed other cars across the alley entrance and threw rocks and bottles at the agents. Before the situation became too desperate, the agents banded together, rushed the barricade, and escaped.
Hogan's Alley didn't flourish forever. In 1929, the state widened Jefferson Avenue and the shacks in Hogan’s Alley were torn down. Then Prohibition was repealed. A stroke of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's pen demolished an entire flourishing industry in December 1933. The rumrunners were legalized out of business and Ecorse city officials tore down the fence by the waterfront and created a park.
"Rumrunning and the Roaring Twenties: Prohibition on the
Michigan-Ontario Waterway," Philip P. Mason, Wayne State University Press,
"Prohibition: Thirteen Years That Changed America," Edward Behr,
Arcade Publishing, 1996.