Bootleg Paradise

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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).

A map shows how the last specks of France’s colonial empire were perfectly positioned to supply a parched Northeast.
 
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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.”

A reporter estimated that 15 to 20 rumrunners were here on any given day.

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.