Bootleg Paradise

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Saint-Pierre is the smallest of the three inhabited islands, but blessed with the best harbor, it is thus home to most residents. (It has about 6,000 islanders, compared with 700 on Miquelon and just a handful on Langlade.) The harbor town of Saint-Pierre has two hotels and several bed-and-breakfasts. Suffice it to say that the Mobil Guide would not be at risk of running out of stars were it to rate the hostelries of Saint-Pierre. I lodged at the utilitarian but comfortable Ile de France, a 24-room hotel whose chief amenity was an electric shoe buffer in the hallway. From the hotel I found I could walk to the far edges of the city in any direction in about 10 minutes, and so it made a fine base from which to seek Prohibition’s offshore lair.

Unloading champagne from a schooner for transshipment to a thirsty U.S.A. during Prohibition.
 
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A Florida ship captain named Bill McCoy is said to have invented the smuggling trade on Saint-Pierre. One day the rumrunner was stuck at a hotel in Halifax, Nova Scotia, trying to figure out what to do with a shipment of liquor that was under threat of confiscation by overzealous Canadian customs agents.

Pacing the lobby, McCoy ran into a man with a French accent and asked if he was from Quebec. No, the man replied, he was from the French island of Saint-Pierre. He happened also to be a licensed shipping agent, and he told McCoy his problems would be solved if he would divert his cargo northward and offload at his warehouse. McCoy did just that, and a profitable business relationship bloomed.

Others followed McCoy’s lead, and Saint-Pierre soon attracted a new class of visitor. “Steamers that ply between North Sydney and those attractive isles of the North Atlantic, St. Pierre and Miquelon, are carrying ever-increasing numbers of very busy American ‘business men’ these days,” The New York Times reported in 1921. The paper described the new arrivals as “well-dressed, black-cigar-smoking gentlemen.” Their business was euphemistically called the “St. Pierre–Bahamas trade.” Fishing schooners would fill their holds with Canadian whiskey or French brandy, then file manifests claiming they were destined for the Britishheld Bahamas.

En route, however, the ships found themselves pulled westward by an irresistible economic tide. The “Bahamas-bound” fishing schooners would appear on the horizon off New England or Long Island near nightfall. As darkness fell, sleek motor launches would dart out from the mainland and ferry their cargo back to dark coves.

These tiny islands were to Prohibition what Iwo Jima was to the Pacific war.

I learned about McCoy’s pioneering of “rum row” from Jean Pierre Andrieux, whose family comes from Saint-Pierre and who still has business interests on the island. “I grew up with stories of the whiskey times,” he said. “My grandparents were traders—minor traders, but traders.” I had stopped by Andrieux’s house in Newfoundland, where he had spread across his dining-room table the contents of two large red duffel bags of Prohibition-era documents. These he rescued years ago from the attic of Henri Morazé, one of the island’s more infamous liquor dealers. “I have the documents, the pictures, the artifacts,” Andrieux said with obvious pride. “And I’ve had great fun preaching the gospel about that era.”

He showed me various receipts and encrypted telegrams, along with a notebook filled with numbers and letters. “This is the code book,” Andrieux explained. “When they would communicate from the ship, they would send numbers, and here they would be translated.”

Andrieux said the island went through two main acts during the long drama of Prohibition. At the outset smugglers used converted fishing schooners, which could transport up to 3,000 cases. But business changed after Canada tightened export rules, under pressure from the United States. (In exchange, the United States dropped criminal charges against Canadians arrested for smuggling.) Canada thenceforth required all liquor exporters to post a substantial bond, which would be refunded only with proof that their cargo had been offloaded at a legal destination.

“It appears logical,” The New York Times reported, “that smugglers would clear their liquor for St. Pierre and Miquelon and make those islands bases for operations along the North Atlantic Coast of the United States.”

It was logical, and smugglers did exactly that, trading in their schooners for specially built rumrunners that could haul as many as 25,000 cases at a time. (This shift to larger boats was also prodded by Congress’s decision to extend territorial waters to 12 miles from 3, making the offshore transfer more logistically challenging.)