The Daring and Dangerous World of Prohibition Rum Running

By Katy O'Hara
Posted in The Field Guide to Drinking in America, on August 17, 2016

Summer is one of the best times to cut loose and enjoy a drink (or two). However, Americans weren’t always able to enjoy this particular freedom — at least not legally. From 1920-1933, Prohibition made it illegal for alcohol of any kind to be made, imported, or sold in the United States. Some enterprising and daring souls knew that despite how difficult it may be, there were ways to get around the newly implemented laws.

Rum running — the illegal transport of alcoholic beverages ashore across a forbidden border — began before the United States even had a nationwide ban on alcohol. This is because our friends to the north had their own set of prohibition laws throughout the provinces. Between 1918-1920, rum runners of the United States brought in enough liquor to help undermine prohibition in Canada. When the time came, Canadian runners returned the favor, bringing Canadian beer and whisky into the United States.

In the early days of Prohibition, one famed rum runner discovered it was much safer to bring boats loaded with booze to waters just outside U.S. territory, and allow smaller boats to bring the goods into shore. These smaller boats had a better chance of outrunning the Coast Guard, and could dock much easier and in tighter spaces. The mind behind the operation was Rum Runner William McCoy William McCoy, a yacht builder out of Florida who hit upon hard times. Good man that he was, McCoy never cut the strength of the liquor he brought in. Unfortunately for him, the Coast Guard caught up in 1923, putting an end to his days as a rum runner, and landing him in jail for nine months.

Though rum running continued throughout Prohibition, the Coast Guard made it more difficult to get away with. Prior to 1924, the line where ships would line up outside of U.S. jurisdiction was called a rum row, and stood three miles beyond the maritime limit of the U.S. As rum running became a bigger problem, the U.S. extended the rum row to twelve miles. This made it much harder for ships to sneak into shore past the Coast Guard, though, of course, not impossible.

The rum running trade died down a few years after Prohibition ended, but by no means did it stop. Some liquor laws from the Prohibition era are just now being changed, and some that predate Prohibition are still in effect. For example, Niki Ganong points out in The Field Guide to Drinking in America that more than one-third of Tennessee's counties have been dry since before the Prohibition. Though the law still prohibits the purchase of booze in these counties, it’s not illegal to purchase or consume elsewhere. In Kansas, it was illegal to sell liquor on Sundays until 2005, and restrictions weren’t lifted on the ability to have happy hour specials until 2011. These laws are inconvenient, but a vast improvement since Prohibition — at least for those not in a heavily restricted state. There are still some modern day runners bringing alcohol illegally to the U.S. and elsewhere. Runners past and present live a life of high risk and high reward. Above all, they believe you should have your rum, and drink it, too.