Seeking a monument to Prohibition’s immense impact on American society, the writer finds it in a French colony.
Prohibition ranks among America’s most vivid historic epochs. Yet the era of flappers and jazz is also curiously Oz-like. The drinking ban dominated the American social and cultural conversation between 1920 and 1933. Then one day the country awoke as if from a dream to find all traces of it gone, save for a few bootlegged bottles that washed up at local historical society museums, flotsam on history’s beach.
I’d been doing research on Prohibition for a book on the history of rum and cocktail culture and early on got the idea that it would be enlightening to visit some of the era’s shrines. But where were they? There’s no Prohibition National Park, of course, and hardly anything more substantial than specious stories and the vanished footprints of long-dead smugglers.
One place piqued my curiosity, however. I had often come upon references to Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, a little-known archipelago off the coast of Newfoundland, which served as a major entrepôt for smuggling on the Eastern Seaboard. The islands are to this day part of France, the last vestige of a once-sprawling colonial empire. They’re just 93 square miles—slightly smaller than the borough of Queens, New York—but these tiny islands were to Prohibition what Iwo Jima was to the Pacific Theater in World War II, dots on a map whose history far surpassed their humble geography.
I resolved to take a trip there, with the hope that I might find traces of that lost era of smuggled booze.
On January 16, 1919, Nebraska became the thirty-sixth state to ratify a constitutional amendment prohibiting liquor sales in America. Soon after, Congress passed the Volstead Act, which contained the legal mechanics to enforce the ban. Starting in January 1920, anyone involved in the production, transfer, or sale of any alcoholic beverage in America would face jail time and confiscation of property.
Liquor, like any liquid, has a natural propensity to seek its way around obstacles. So bootleggers decanted whiskey into the spare tires of their cars in Canada and crossed the border with a practiced insouciance. In the South, liquor flowed into Florida’s mangrove swamps from Bimini and the Bahamas under cloudy night skies. Business took off in the least expected places.
Among them: Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, a compact cluster of small, largely treeless islands, which the Portuguese explorer João Alvarez Faguendes had come upon in 1520. French and Basque fishermen subsequently showed a keen interest in them, thanks to the teeming stocks of codfish on nearby fishing banks. France claimed the islands and fortified Saint-Pierre’s harbor in 1700, but the British overran the defenses two years later and occupied it until 1763.
That year marked the French defeat in the Seven Years’ War and the end of France’s New World dominion—an empire that once included much of present-day Canada and several strategic islands in the West Indies. British negotiators evidently took sympathy on France and in the end returned Saint-Pierre and Miquelon in order that the French might fish for cod. (One imagines British negotiators privately snickering about leaving the once-powerful French with what one visitor later called “little dots of gorse and granite.”)
The French tricolor rippling in the wind was among the first things I noticed after I made a 24-mile ferry crossing from Newfoundland and cleared Saint-Pierre customs. The ferry terminal fronts the Place du Général de Gaulle, and stepping outside I immediately knew that culturally I wasn’t in North America any more. Renaults and Citroëns zipped by with callous disregard for pedestrian safety. Islanders emerged from the patisserie on the plaza carrying baguettes and smoking Gitanes. Everything was priced in euros, and every shop closed for two hours at noon.
Colorful houses—turquoise and yellow and purple with green trim—stair-stepped down the hillsides that enclose the harbor, creating a cityscape that looks like a bowlful of Legos. This tight settlement pattern is far more European than what I’d found in Atlantic Canada, which favors stoic houses perched individually on rocky bluffs in defiance of the wind.
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.
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.
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.)
Offices housing shell companies established by Canadian distillers soon lined the waterfront, and some two dozen stout new liquor warehouses sprouted up to accommodate the burgeoning trade. By one estimate, these storage facilities could hold a million cases of liquor. The harbor was also bettered with new concrete wharves equipped with chutes that allowed stevedores to load liquor onto the ships directly from carts and trucks and with a vastly improved breakwater. Ships poured in. One reporter estimated that 15 to 20 rumrunners were tied up at Saint-Pierre at any given time, with 4 or 5 heading south every day. In 1931 enough liquor was imported to the island for every resident to consume 453 gallons (had they done so, it would have produced a hangover visible from Europe).
Life on the island, a place accustomed to the hardscrabble vagaries of fishing, was suddenly sweet. “This was the first time that the colony ever had a surplus budget in their history,” Andrieux said. The New York Times reported that “certain sailors who used to be impecunious … have become free spenders and flashy dressers.” The sounds of accordions spilled out of the Café de Paris, and “St. Pierre went in for pianos,” a reporter noted, “and every coastal boat unloaded at least one to try its strings against an unhappy climate.” An automobile dealer opened his doors, selling cars on an island whose longest road stretched all of four miles.
As it did with Canada, the United States took umbrage at the illicit exports and sought to pressure France to stanch the flow. France collectively hunched its shoulders, pursed its lips, and slowly turned its palms upward in the international “What can be done?” gesture. “The government of France has no knowledge of any trafficking in liquor from St Pierre et Miquelon,” the island’s acting governor replied. “The government is not in the wine or liquor business.”
Saint-pierre today can be easily explored on foot, which is fortunate since the ferries don’t take cars. (Taxis, however, are readily available and will deliver you about anywhere on the island for three euros.) The streets are narrow and generally lack sidewalks, but the brightly painted buildings serve up a rich bouillabaisse of street-side styles, from regal Second Empire to foursquare Atlantic Canadian, with the occasional unexpected sight thrown in. Just east of downtown is L’Arche Musée-Archives, a soaring bit of Nordic modern architecture that looks not unlike a beached and upturned Viking ship. Farther along I came upon a red-painted outdoor fronton where the fast-paced Basque game of pelote is still enjoyed by descendants of the original settlers.
I took a 10-minute boat ride across the harbor to Ile aux Marins, a fisherman’s settlement abandoned in the 1960s that’s now administered as an outdoor museum. I strolled the island’s rocky shoreline and admired the collection of historic structures, including a school, a fisherman’s house, and a proud and evocative church.
I learned much about Saint-Pierre’s rich past here and in my walks around town and found but one lamentable exception in the historic record: What about Prohibition? I discovered few references of any sort. At the new Musée Héritage, a private collection of local artifacts a block from my hotel, I found, near the requisite display of alarming surgical instruments, a single Prohibition-era exhibit, consisting of a few dispirited bottles and some stray correspondence.
I knew from Jean-Pierre Andrieux that the liquor trade had a unusual byproduct: whiskey crates. Full silence was essential in transferring the goods from rum ship to basement speakeasy, but wooden cases filled with bottles clanked and rattled inconveniently. So the bottles were taken from the crates in Saint-Pierre and repacked in straw and jute sacks. The broken crates were abandoned outside the warehouses. The island had so many discarded cases that “a pyramid of them rises in every yard,” said one account, and for several years they provided fuel to take the chill out of the damp island air.
Enterprising islanders also used the crate ends to panel the insides of their homes and, in one instance, built a whole house out of unused crates. Andrieux mentioned a privately owned house locally called the Cutty Sark Villa, which could be seen during bus tours of the island. It felt silly to board a full-sized bus to tour an island with just a few miles of roadway, so I climbed into a taxi and asked to be shown the villa, a couple of miles from town on the road to the former fishing village of Savoyard.
We ascended along rocky upland barrens, then crested a broad hill with a sweeping view of a glimmering sea. Moments later the driver edged to the side of the road, put on his flashers, and pointed to a green picket fence. I approached it and peered up an overgrown drive at an immaculate but tiny house, white with red trim, that from the road looked no bigger than a child’s play-house. New, larger houses had sprouted nearby, the Saint-Pierre version of sprawl. The taxi driver told me that the “villa” —clearly the locals had a sense of irony —was the summer home of an elderly woman in town, but lately it hadn’t been well cared for and its future was uncertain.
As monuments go, I thought it lacked a certain grandeur.
Later that afternoon i walked down to the harbor’s edge and headed east. Andrieux had earlier suggested I stop by the Hôtel Robert, which is owned by his 81-year-old mother. Here, in a long room just off the restaurant, he’s put on display some of his collection of Prohibition leftovers. I went in and examined liquor crates and ship models, empty bottles discarded by the case after Repeal made them worthless, and manifests for illicit liquor shipments.
I was especially keen to see a straw hat in a glass case. This had belonged to Al Capone, or so Andrieux told me. The most famous of all gangsters had unexpectedly shown up at the hotel late one night. Andrieux’s mother’s cousin was at the hotel that night. “They were singing out, ‘Angelina, Angelina, open up the bar, Al Capone is here!’” Andrieux said. His grandfather was also there and, according to family lore, complimented Capone on his splendid hat. The mob boss took it off and handed it to him.
The hat served as a conversation piece at the Andrieux country house for decades. But when Andrieux rescued it some 30 years ago, it was serving as a nest for kittens. The chapeau’s former glory is behind it now, with a tear near the top and the wide brim lusterless. But there it sits in its own reliquary, a crown of a former empire.
What fascinated me most, though, were the old black-and-white photos arrayed on a table and lining walls here and in a back room. They depicted the heady rumrunning days on the island: drays hauling huge loads of liquor from the wharves to the warehouses, ships tied up dockside, a rumrunner dispensing thick plumes of oily smoke (a smuggler’s trick to give the slip to pursuing agents).
Poring over the photos, I was struck by a small realization that steadily grew into a large one. The buildings that I had been strolling past over the last two days? They were the old liquor warehouses and export offices, although so transformed that I didn’t recognize them.
The video store two blocks from my hotel had been the headquarters of the Northern Export Company, set up by the Bronfmans for outbound sales. Henri Morazé’s office was in the building now occupied by the Musée Héritage. The bar and disco across from my hotel—where the talk was of hockey and the background classic American rock rather than accordion music—had been another warehouse for stockpiling liquor.
When I walked out of the Hôtel Robert that afternoon, I suddenly saw Prohibition everywhere. Two concrete warehouses were emblazoned with spss, standing for St. Pierre Slips and Stores, and dated 1928 and 1929. (Today they house a hardware store and a Lions Club.) Another sturdy warehouse had been built by one Louis Hardy around 1925 and used by Morazé, and a hulking warehouse—that of Morue Française, built in 1928—lay farther along the harbor.
I had been in the middle of a Prohibition park without even knowing it. Saint-Pierre was the town illicit liquor had built.
I headed back toward my hotel in a buoyant mood; I had found what I had come for. I stopped by a liquor shop—and why not?—with the thought of a acquiring a souvenir. I looked over an impressively large selection of rums from Martinique and an even more sizable collection of French wines. Eventually I found myself standing in front of a slender bottle of absinthe, a liqueur made by infusing alcohol with herbs, including wormwood, which supposedly has a psychoactive effect. Largely forgotten today, it was the preferred drink of European bohemians a century ago, featured in paintings by Edgar Degas, Vincent van Gogh, Edouard Manet, and Pablo Picasso.
And one other thing: It’s been banned in the United States since 1912. Prohibition, it turns out, can still be found by the bottle.