“River Rats” daring runs helped keep Americans buzzed
“River Rats” helped keep Americans buzzed during Prohibition
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.
“There is a certain spirituality up here that comes from the river, and how it attracts people,” Randazzo said.
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 bottles of liquor such as 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.”
Networks of smugglers had hiding places all along the border. Down the river on the Canadian side near the town of Prescott is The Blue Church, a little robin’s egg colored church with a 300-year-old cemetery. There in the graveyard is one hollow tombstone 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.
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.”