Rum-Runners: Victoria and the Prohibition Years

By Norman K Archer


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The first alcoholic beverage produced on Vancouver Island was a strange but popular concoction brewed by George Vancouver’s sailors from spruce needles during their exploration of the area in 1792. As soon as the Gold Rush hit the locality in 1858, however, commercial breweries sprang up like mushrooms, the first being the Victoria Brewery, established by German-born William Steinberger near Swan Lake. He grew his own hops, used the water from the lake and business boomed.

Liquor fast became a commonly accepted trading commodity with the native population. At first, the Hudson’s Bay Company frowned on the concept and the natives showed no taste for liquor, spitting it out in disgust. It wasn’t long, however, before the local people developed a thirst every bit as strong as the white settlers. The desire for alcohol was one of the factors that prompted the movement of their camps closer to a ready supply. This served the purposes of the white traders well for they were able to obtain a load of furs in exchange for a bottle of rum. Everyone was happy.

But as soon as the glitter of gold took precedence over the pelts of fur, the native population lost its usefulness and was treated as a nuisance and an impediment to progress. Racial tensions escalated and the oppression of the aboriginal people intensified. Not only had they been robbed of their means of survival alongside the white man, but they had also acquired an insatiable thirst for alcohol with all the ensuing problems. They had been forced into a subservient position, totally dependent on the white man for their liquor supply, with no way of offering comparable service, other than prostitution.

The liquor problem, however, was by no means confined to the native population. Victoria in the 1860s was a vile place to live. Raw sewage flowed through the streets. Filth and squalor was everywhere. Disease was rampant. Gold had made it a largely transient society so few people had much interest in improving the environment. Most people coped with the dirt by escaping through the bottle, forgetting their troubles and finding release from their daily struggles with the ale pot or the whiskey glass. To exacerbate the problem, alcohol had become the most commonly prescribed medication for every ache and pain imaginable. It was present in almost every patent remedy from curing a cough to relieving a chilblain. It was administered to children as a sedative and given to babies as “fortified milk.”

Throughout the previous century, many people in the western world were troubled. They saw clearly the ravages brought on society by the abuse of alcohol, and temperance societies were now putting pressure on governments to take action. New Brunswick was the first province to take tentative steps towards Prohibition in 1856. Ontario left it to local jurisdictions and many municipalities went dry. But British Columbia remained firmly opposed to any kind of liquor control.

By the 1890s, however, Prohibition in Canada had become a popular position. Although an 1898 plebiscite showed overwhelming public support for Prohibition, it took the First World War to goad parliament into action and, in 1916, Canada began to pass liquor control laws. They were laws with many loopholes and it was left to each province to administer them how it chose and, in fact, each local jurisdiction had considerable liberty too. The most persuasive arguments had to do with the war effort.

“If our soldiers are willing to sacrifice their lives, the least you can do to show support is to sacrifice your drink!”

This position was further reinforced by the argument that grain used for liquor production was being diverted from areas where food was desperately needed. However, to enact a law was one thing, but to enforce it was another and ingenious ways to circumvent the law were quickly implemented.

In the United States, the Prohibition movement had gathered enormous strength and when Congress passed the Volstead Act in 1919, it launched that country into 14 years of rigorous Prohibition. What was intended as a way to preserve the family and improve morals backfired as rival gangs fought for supremacy in the trading of illicit liquor - much of which was of inferior quality and a health hazard to those who consumed it.

Canada, now a wet country after only two years of Prohibition, became the haven for Rumrunners to the United States. Many were unscrupulous and watered down their contraband. Others, to their credit, aimed at a dubious form of honesty. Refusing to dilute his whiskey, William S. McCoy always sold the pure stuff and gave rise, as some have suggested, to the phrase, “The Real McCoy.”

Victoria had its own part to play during this era. The upscale area known as “The Uplands” (named after the original owner, John Upland) had been landscaped by one of America’s foremost designers, John Olmstead, whose family was involved in the landscaping of Boston Common, New York Central Park and other famous landmarks. But the economic climate was not good and building lots were slow to sell. Soon, Victoria rum-runners appeared with cash in hand and were the first owners of many of The Uplands properties.

Ships built in Victoria soon proved the ideal vessels for rum-running. One was the *Revuocnav* (Vancouver spelled backwards.) Its owner and skipper was one of the best-known and most elusive Rumrunner, Johnny Schnarr, who made over 400 successful runs out of Victoria, bringing at least four million dollars into Canada. His first runs were to Anacortes, to avoid the coast guards’ patrols, but he knew it was only a matter of time before law enforcement boats would be too close for comfort. To combat this danger, he designed faster and faster boats that could easily outrun any coast guard cutter. Another Victoria-built ship enlisted for the west-coast run was a remarkable five-masted schooner, *Malahat* that could carry 100,000 cases of liquor when fully loaded.

But the King of Rum-runners in this area was the notorious Roy Olmstead, an ex-police sergeant from Seattle who operated principally out of Victoria, using the dreaded D’Arcy Island as his hiding place. Olmstead, a shrewd businessman, was a big, friendly, charming and intelligent con-artist. He bought his contraband through a local connection at 50 cents a bottle from the Victoria-Phoenix Brewing Company or from the Victoria Silver Springs Distillery. It passed through several hands and was eventually sold for $5 a bottle.

Olmstead had a fleet of boats and quickly drove his competitors out of business. With his legion of boatmen, messengers, lawyers and warehousemen, he became one of the largest employers in the area, transporting more than 200 cases of best quality liquor a day to Seattle. His empire lasted six years, but the new, fast coast guard vessels didn’t destroy him. It was a new technology called “wire-tapping!” His magnificent mansion was raided in November 1924 and, two days later, Olmstead was arrested and the biggest trial in the Prohibition saga followed. He was sentenced to four years imprisonment. While in jail, he converted to the Christian Science faith and lived to denounce liquor as destructive to society. President Roosevelt granted him a full pardon and he spent the rest of his life teaching Sunday school and visiting jails as an upright member of the community until his death on April 30, 1966 at the age of 79.

Soon the Great Depression began, the Prohibition laws were repealed and the good times for rum-runners were gone forever.

 

DECEMBER 2009 SENIOR LIVING VANCOUVER ISLAND

 

 

 

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Comments

Showing 1 to 1 of 1 comments.

Great article, Being in my eighties, I have spoken to many of the Rum Runners who were still living in those times. George Bromley, Was my uncle, (uncle george) told me many stories of those times. How he weighted down each container with salt blocks. one side of the ship was hinged, when the RCMP speed speed boats were pulling up to one side, the hinges were released, and the cargo was released into the water, The RCMP found an empty cargo hole, Where uncle Bromly would return for their cash at the calculated time. No more room for more uncle Bromlies stories... Alex Shovoval...

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