Lake Michigan Beer Runners: A Prohibition Story

May. 22, 2017
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Lake Michigan beer runner Paul Smith (foreground) and his lawyer

It was a freezing late October night in 1923 in Milwaukee, with a steady breeze blowing the frigid air above Lake Michigan across the harbor and towards the mainland. Hidden in the darkness, just inside the breakwater wall, was a pair of U.S. Coast Guard cutters. In addition to their usual Coast Guard crews, each vessel carried a pair of federal prohibition agents. The men stared off into the inky blackness of the lake and waited.

For months, there had been rumors of speedboats running liquor on the Great Lakes. The Coast Guard, prohibition agents, and customs officials had thus far all been unable to capture one of these elusive vessels. Authorities believed that the boats were coming from Canada and bringing mass quantities of Canadian booze into the U.S. One of the runner’s prime destinations was Milwaukee, where a wide bay and ample lakefront offered numerous dark places for illegal payloads to be delivered.

In early fall 1923 the Feds caught a break. During the raid of a Downtown speakeasy run by a man named Harry Hunter, agents uncovered several cases of Labatt’s Crystal Lager beer – brewed and bottled in Ontario, Canada. With agents leaning on Hunter, he admitted that he got his supply direct from Canada. Leaning a little more, agents learned when he expected his next delivery.

As it neared 1 a.m., the prohibition agents hidden on the lake began to wonder if they had been duped or if Hunter had tipped off his suppliers. But then, off on the murky horizon, two small dark spots appeared. Within a few minutes, the faint murmur of gas engines could be heard. The Coast Guard crews readied themselves and waited. As the two boats passed the breakwater wall, the Coast Guard boats swooped around them, appearing seemingly out of nowhere to begin slowly circling the cabin cruisers. The men onboard the suspect vessels surrendered without incident.

The boats were led towards the Milwaukee River at gunpoint and docked off the Third Ward. Searching the boats, agents found 500 cases of Labatt, lager and pale ale. Four men, all with local addresses, were arrested. The owner of the two boats, a man named Paul K. Smith, was tagged as the ringleader. Coast Guard Capt. William Kincaid, who helped to seize the vessels, remarked that they were probably among the fastest boats on the lakes.

But, as it turned out, Smith’s mini-fleet was not the mystery ships that officials had been hunting. Although all of the men involved faced federal charges, the operation busted was a rather small one. Milwaukee’s trouble with rum-running power boats would continue into the next year, when the bootlegger’s speed would face off with federal guns. Check back next week for another gripping tale of booze battles on Lake Michigan.

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