With peace in Europe after World War I, a bizarre chapter in the story of Narragansett Bay began. It was to last 14 years, a period of unparalleled smuggling, piracy, murder, and lawlessness. New words were added to the American vocabulary, such as "hijacking," "speakeasy," "home brew," "rum-running," and "rum row." America's experiment with Prohibition strained the country's moral fiber and consolidated the operations of organized crime. Narragansett Bay was not immune.
Although the Volstead Act was passed in October 1919 and the United States Coast Guard set up its defenses against smuggling by sea in 1920, Americans refused, to take the prohibition against alcoholic beverages seriously. Breaking the law became the norm for many; speakeasies sprang up, and stable, conservative "pillars of the community' made dandelion wine and beer in the cellar and served "bathtub gin" to their guests. Smugglers of every variety brought imported liquor over the back roads of the Canadian border arid bottled goods in sacks into the coves and estuaries along both the Atlantic and the Pacific Coasts.
The rum-runners were a motley crew who met a fleet of tramp steamers, New England and Canadian fishing schooners, steam yachts, and even tugboats that sailed from islands off Newfoundland, from Bermuda, and from the West Indies. At first, the heavily laden vessels dropped anchor just outside the three-mile territorial limit and later, after the United States worked out international agreements, outside the 12-mile limit. When federal jurisdiction was limited to just three miles off the beaches, almost anything that floated was employed to transfer cargoes from the anchored fleet to hiding places ashore. Even rowboats were used at times. When the territorial boundaries were pushed out to 12 miles, more seaworthy craft were needed able to carry several hundred cases of contraband at high speeds and in all weather.
The principal rum row, the lineup of larger vessels, was off the New York-New Jersey coast, nearest to the largest collection of thirsty drinkers, but others were established in New England waters, off the Virginia Capes, and in Florida Narragansett Bay rum-runners were supplied at times by a rum row about 15 miles southeast of Block Island, where as many as 14 schooners and steamers at a time lay at anchor.
Initially, the Coast Guard was at a disadvantage. It had no vessels fast enough to offer serious challenge in the race for shore or small enough to enter the coves and inlets once inside the Bay. At best, the Coast Guard cutters could patrol the rum row fleet and harass the small rum-running boats as they scooted for shore. Occasionally, a tramp steamer or converted fishing boat could be trapped and confiscated inside the territorial waters. As time went by, however, new patrol boats were constructed of from 35 to 75 feet in length. These were faster and, if maneuvered smartly, could provide more competition, especially when equipped with powerful searchlights and deck-mounted machine guns.
With a $15 case of Scotch worth $35 wholesale ashore it was worth the rumrunners' time and expense to construct even faster boats, which managed to win the speed contest more often then not.
Distribution of illegal alcohol to slake the mighty thirst of the times became big business and provided an opportunity for organized crime to grow and prosper. Al Capone and Legs Diamond and a dozen lesser chieftains competed for control of every facet of the business. Small operators, some ordinary fishermen and boatmen who had never before indulged in an illicit act, had their vessels looted, captured by pirate gangs, and destroyed by fire. Some were murdered and others were driven out of business. In the end, organized crime syndicates controlled the entire operation.
The Coast Guard began to use some of the Navy's destroyers to supplement its small fleet of cutters for open-sea patrol and augmented its small craft fleet with captured rum-runners. These, designed to outrun the patrol craft, were among the best chase boats available to the federal agents.
Some of the most successful rum-runners were up to 75 feet long, armor-plated, low in profile, and powered by as many as three big Liberty engines (World War I surplus) capable of attaining speeds of 40 to 50 miles an hour with 1,000 cases of liquor aboard. The motors could be muffled to a whisper, and devices were carried which emitted oily smoke when the rum-runners were closely pursued. Some had double bottoms and false bulkheads to create secret storage spaces for the pyramid-shaped sacks of liquor.
The three entrances to Narragansett Bay provided excellent opportunities for the grim game of cat-and-mouse during the Prohibition Era. At night or on a foggy day, the rum-runners escaped from their pursuers repeatedly. With the contraband landed, problems of distribution often involved avoidance of hijacking by rival gangs rather than raids by federal agents. The Coast Guard did its best for 14 years and came through the trauma of the twenties and early thirties with its reputation enhanced, but authorities on the land were not as vigorous in carrying out their duties. Some were not above accepting bribes.
Stories of the rum-running days on Narragansett Bay exist in every waterfront community. The rum-runners sometimes used a beach-front summer estate in the owner's absence as a transfer point. In one case, so the tale goes, an absentee owner checking up on his property found an envelope stuffed with hundred-dollar bills in his mailbox. He tucked it in his pocket and went back to the city. A month later he found a similar envelope. Month after month he went down to the shore to collect his "rent," but never saw his tenants.
A two-story house situated near the mouth of the West Passage was built especially for the smuggling business. It is only a few feet from the shore. A grape arbor masks a driveway leading down to a basement garage of proportions suitable for a large truck. An adjacent basement room has a tunnel entrance leading from a stone and concrete pier, which once extended into the Bay. The tunnel is now blocked up and only vestiges of the pier remain. On the second floor a large recreation room has a dormer window providing an excellent view up and down the Bay and a huge mahogany hotel bar complete with brass footrail and mirrors. According to the present owner, the land-based associates of the rum-runners parked their truck in the basement and whiled away their time at the second floor bar until their lookout reported that a cargo was arriving at the dock. Then they went downstairs and quickly transferred the liquor from the boat through the tunnel to the truck in the basement.
At times, fishing boats were successfully used as rum-running craft, a layer of fish covering the contraband in the hold, and one Bay rum-runner is reported to have designed a submersible vehicle to hold his cargo. It was towed behind his fishing boat, which then gave the appearance of a dragger pulling a net through the water. One local shellfish dealer reportedly did very well in disguising his stocks of liquor bottles by hiding them in barrels under thick layers of quahaugs.
One of the most successful rum-running boats in Narragansett Bay was the Black Duck. On December 28, 1929, Boatswain Alexander C. Cornell left the Coast Guard base at New London, and tied up at dusk to The Dumplings bell buoy. He turned off his lights and waited. Offshore, the Black Duck, loaded with 383 sacks of liquor from a British vessel, approached the entrance to the Bay.
As the rum-runner neared the patrol boat, Cornell turned on his searchlight and ordered it to stop with his Klaxon horn. No one was visible on the Black Duck, but it increased its speed. Cornell ordered a crewman to fire his machine gun across the stern of the rum-runner just as the Black Duck swerved sharply to port. Bullets raked the pilot house of the rum-runner as it disappeared into the night. Minutes later, the Coast Guardsmen heard the craft returning, and it suddenly loomed up alongside piloted by a man with a bullet hole through one hand. The other three crew members had been killed instantly.
The Black Duck became a familiar sight to many Rhode Islanders from that time on. It was repainted and joined the Coast Guard as patrol boat CG 808.