“River Rats” daring runs helped keep Americans buzzed

“River Rats” helped keep Americans buzzed during Prohibition

Prohibition ended in 1933, but it still shapes the region along the Saint Lawrence River, which is dotted with distilleries, museums and other nods to its past.
Published: May 30, 2019 | Updated: May 25th, 2020 at 10:26 pm
Gravestones at the cemetery for The Blue Church in Prescott, Ontario
Gravestones at the cemetery for The Blue Church in Prescott, Ontario.

In order to smuggle alcohol into New York during Prohibition, a common trick among bootleggers was to hide bottles of booze in crates of sugar before making the daring journey across the Saint Lawrence River from Canada to the United States.

If U.S. officials caught them on the river, the smugglers – or river rats, as they are called in these parts – would dump the crates overboard.

Phil Randazzo is the founder of Coyote Moon Vineyards and the owner of Whiskey Island, a private island that once functioned as a

“The crates would sink, because of the sugar that was in there,” said Phil Randazzo, who founded Coyote Moon Vineyards and owns Whiskey Island, a private island that once functioned as a “drop and run” point for smugglers on their expeditions.

“Hours later,” he explained, “as the sugar dissolved, the cases of whiskey would all float to the surface.  They’d go back and scoop ‘em up, put ‘em in their boat, and go on their way.”

The St. Lawrence River, which flows west-to-east between the United States and Canada, graces countless postcards with its promise of great fishing and boating – the gospel of a well-spent summer. It is dotted with islands, giving the region its nickname, the Thousand Islands.

At points the river is wide and calm. When it narrows, it becomes hard to fathom that the north and south shores are two different countries with their own laws and customs.

The border here is teeming with history. Battles between the U.S. and Britain and their loyal subjects in Canada in the 1700- and 1800-hundreds gave way to cooperation between Canadians who could make and own alcohol in the 1920s, and Americans who desperately wanted either the booze, or the money it would fetch.

This history shapes towns like Clayton, New York, with its cloak-and-dagger past. From 1920 to 1933, Prohibition banned the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcohol in the United States.  The river and its history with smuggling is reflected all over town, especially in bars, vineyards and museums.

“There is a certain spirituality up here that comes from the river, and how it attracts people,” said Randazzo.

Nestled on Riverside Drive in Clayton is a tasting room called The Saint Lawrence Spirits Château.  Their motto is “The Spirit of the River in Every Bottle,” and they sell “bootlegger bags,” which are drawstring sacks filled with tiny liquor bottles like whiskey and moonshine.  Although Prohibition-era smugglers are commonly called “rum-runners,” they transported all different types of alcohol, depending on the order.

“Everything that we do,” Château bartender Heidi Costello said, “we try to keep it river-related.”

Cases of wine bottles at Coyote Moon Vineyards in Clayton, New York.
Cases of wine bottles at Coyote Moon Vineyards in Clayton, New York.

Networks of smugglers had hiding places all along the border. Down the river on the Canadian side is a little robin’s egg blue church and a 300-year-old cemetery in a town called Maitland. There is one hollow gravestone towering above the others that smugglers would use to hide liquor bottles.

“The story goes, that the plaque would be removed, and the bottles would just go in.  Then you could go off with your sack down to a boat, and row across to upstate New York,” said John Harding, caretaker and chair member of the church.  “You could pull into any one of numerous coves, hide stuff, and go back across under the cover of darkness.”

On their way back, some smugglers would put the bottles in nets and tie them to the skiff, letting them float underneath in the water.  That way, if they were caught by customs officials, they would simply cut the nets free.

A significant number of bootleggers made liquor deliveries to support their families, as the United States entered the Great Depression in 1929.  While bars, breweries and distilleries went out of business in the states, the Canadian liquor industry blossomed.  The United States also saw an increase in at-home concoctions such as moonshine and bathtub gin.  People did whatever they could to get their hands on the stuff.  While the U.S. economy was plummeting, alcohol remained in high demand, and the business of delivering crates from Canada brought in loads of money to the working class.

“So you take away our booze and our money, and now we’re screwed,” Randazzo said, laughing.  “I think there was an absolute economic motivation for people to sell alcohol.”

Finances were not the only motivating factor.

“We as human beings also love to do what we’re told not to do,” Randazzo said.  “There’s a lot of folks who just want to do what they’re not supposed to do.  And so a lot of that was just trying to outsmart the government.  Economics played a part, and I think it was also the adventure.”

Countless stories of adventure, buried in those 13 years of Prohibition, are kept alive by residents along the border.  Jeff Garnsey, a military veteran and third-generation boat captain, who at the age of 10 was a deckhand on his grandfather’s boat, recalls his own family’s history of bootlegging.

“My grandfather and my uncle were two of the most well-known, if not the most, notorious bootleggers in this neck of the woods,” he said.  The Garnsey brothers, Rolland and Dan, brought a certain pageantry to the job.

“The only reason they got caught was that my grandfather was being a fisherman,” Garnsey said.  “He was a bit of a steamer, too.  And he used to poke fun at the local magistrate in public.”

To them, the border was nothing but a tightrope line they walked frequently, and they enjoyed putting on a good show for the townspeople.

“You’ve heard the saying, everybody has 15 minutes of fame,” Garnsey said.  “Well, in the middle of Prohibition, my grandfather, in his late teens, was offered to grab some alcohol for a gentleman that was visiting down river.”

The man turned out to be Irving Berlin, the famous song composer of  “God Bless America,” as well as “White Christmas.”  He had a camp near Alexandria Bay and a friend named Bing Crosby.

“Well, Bing Crosby was a big fan of Canadian whiskey, so he ordered a case,” Garnsey said. “My grandfather went and picked it up over in Gananoque, rode around the foot of Grindstone, and delivered the case.  Bing Crosby took one of the bottles out, took the cork out and had a shot with my grandfather. That was my grandfather’s fifteen minutes of fame.”

The Blue Church in Prescott, Ontario

The Blue Church in Prescott, Ontario.

Flowers on a window sill at The Blue Church in Prescott, Ontario

Flowers on a window sill at The Blue Church.

As well as being involved in many nonprofits in Clayton, Garnsey is a board member at the Thousand Islands Museum.  The museum’s archives are a treasure trove of documents that also preserve stories of the river rats.  There is one article in particular that describes his Uncle Dan’s adventurous life, beginning with his years of rum-running along the river.

According to the article, by the time he was 14, Dan Garnsey was pulling sleighs filled with cases of beer across the ice from Canada.  “‘It was no trouble to sell a hand-sleigh load of beer,’” the article quotes Dan Garnsey as saying.

The Thousand Islands Museum, with its mannequins, artifacts and yellowed postcards, is the snow globe version of Clayton – it showcases what the town used to be.  Now, the underground speakeasies and contrabandists are nowhere to be seen.

“There were giant hotels here, fabulous places; people would come from all over,” Randazzo said.  “The people that first came here from Europe, and from the city – there used to be a railroad that ended here – had the biggest, fastest cigarette boats.  They came here to just party their brains out.  And that had a lot to do with pre-Prohibition.  But Prohibition pretty much put an end to all that.”

If you walk along the river and look over at the Canada side and all the little islands, you could almost see the ghostly, moon-colored skiffs ironing the water flat, and the bands of bootleggers with tanned skin and razor-blade wit.

“We carry with us our ancestors. We carry it in the memory of ourselves, on a cellular level,” Randazzo said. “Stuff goes with us, so pay attention to not only who you are, but who you were, before you became who you are.”