Rum Runner Shoot-out! A Prohibition Story

May. 30, 2017
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boat
A Prohibition-era speedboat similar to those that prowled Lake Michigan

Just as the money to be made in bootlegging (transporting illegal liquor across land) during Prohibition led to bigger automobile engines and cars capable of out-gunning the cops, the lure of rum-running (transporting illegal booze across water) led to a new breed of super-charged boats that came to be known as “go-fasts.” Last week, we visited the 1923 tale of a go-fast captured just inside the Milwaukee Harbor by the Coast Guard. Although no pursuit took place, Coast Guard Captain William Kincaid remarked that one of the vessels taken was capable of going faster than anything he knew of on the lakes.

Eight months after the capture of these boats, however, Kincaid would be challenged again by an outlaw vessel – one that had no intention of surrendering. It was late July 1924, a hot summer in an ostensibly dry city that just could not get its fill of illegal booze. Milwaukee’s hottest cabaret spot – the Italian Third Ward, was humming with wildcat breweries, hidden stills and underground wineries and needed little assistance from the outside world. But for the city’s vast collection of other speakeasies and “soft drink parlors,” a steady flow of import liquor was needed. The most common foreign contributor was Canada. Zipping across lakes Huron and Michigan, a go-fast brimming with Canadian booze could make the long journey to the American Midwest over a few days, then unload at small harbors, all the while ready to gun it and run if the authorities crept too near.

Milwaukee had been a regular stop on this route for some time by the summer of ’24, with federal Prohibition agents mostly coming up empty in their efforts to end the racket. The 1923 bust had been a big one, but it was merely a drop in the beer bucket in comparison to overall industry. So, when Captain Kincaid got a phone call one Monday evening around 9 p.m., with an anonymous tipster informing him that – at that very moment – a rum-runner was just off the shores of Oak Creek, he immediately ordered his men into action and set out in the most powerful vessel of the Coast Guard’s Milwaukee fleet.

Roaring to top speed on the open lake, Kincaid rounded the south shore. As they passed Grant Park, a small string of lights could be seen off in the murky distance – bopping slightly as would the lights of a small ship at anchor. As the cutter neared, the noise of their engine evidently tipped off the smugglers, who extinguished their lights. Approximately 300 feet away from the mysterious boat – with no warning given – Kincaid drew his service revolver and fired six rounds into the area where the lights had been. Getting no reply, he reloaded his weapon and fired six more times.

In the wake of the shots, the hidden boat fired its engines and roared south. Kincaid and his cutter took off after. The distance from which Kincaid fired on the vessel was as close as the authorities would get. They lost track of the boat near Wind Point, just north of Racine. Thinking that the smugglers had pulled into Racine Harbor to hide, the Coast Guard executed a thorough search of the area, but found nothing. Kincaid and his men did not return to Milwaukee until 4 a.m. the following morning. By then, Kincaid assumed, the go-fast had already reached Chicago, yet another gang of outlaws that had made a mockery of Prohibition. 

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