Skip to content

Rowdy Rumrunners, Rounded up. Rinse & Repeat.

Curtiss HS-2L flying boat model final

Model of a Curtiss HS-2L flying boat, used to intercept Delaware Bay rumrunners. Smithsonian Institution

Prohibition’s onset caught the U.S. Coast Guard flatfooted in their new role of combatting rum-running. The maritime service was ill-equipped to handle the daunting task of patrolling Delaware Bay. 

The Coast Guard manned 19 stations along the DE/MD coastlines, with 6 men assigned to each one. Additionally, the Guard had 41 stations along the New Jersey coast, with only a staff of 3 men per post. This deployment proved to be grossly inadequate for such a formidable challenge. Furthermore, Coast Guard funding was stretched thin following the conclusion of WWI. The federal government significantly reduced military expenditures, and the Coast Guard was not exempt from budget cuts. 

 The Coast Guard encountered other issues, including limits on overall enforcement authority. During that time, U.S. policing jurisdiction extended only out to three nautical miles. Lack of training and experience posed a significant challenge for the Coast Guard. Nor were tactics and procedures for criminal law enforcement in place. 

A Fleet Reborn

From 1920 to the end of Prohibition in 1933, the Coast Guard significantly transformed itself.  

The updated task force evolved into an intimidating presence to Delaware Bay rum-runners. The Guard strategically deployed cutter ships and aircraft to amplify growing regulatory capabilities. 

The Coast Guard contracted construction of new vessels specifically designed for Prohibition enforcement. They also repurposed existing ships, including 20 surplus Navy destroyers. 

The expanded fleet empowered the Coast Guard to effectively combat smuggling on a broader scale. Furthermore, the Navy and Customs Service synchronized their federal law enforcement efforts in a coordinated manner. 

Recognizing the need for aerial surveillance and reconnaissance, the Coast Guard expanded its aviation units and established additional air stations. They procured seaplanes and aircraft, such as the Curtiss HS-2L flying boats, to intercept Delaware Bay rumrunners. 

Caption of this 1932 photo reads: The smaller craft is the Imp, which was halted by Coast Guard shells in Delaware Bay. Beside it is the Coast Guard patrol boat. They are shown tied up at the foot of Chestnut st." (Philadelphia) / 
Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center
Caption of this 1932 photo reads: The smaller craft is the Imp, which was halted by Coast Guard shells in Delaware Bay. Beside it is the Coast Guard patrol boat. They are shown tied up at the foot of Chestnut St.” (Philadelphia) /
Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

Illegal alcohol operations in the bay attracted suppliers from all points of the compass. Bahamian smugglers regularly used ‘bank boats’, shallow draft skiffs, to land their Scotch whisky in the dunes between Bethany and Rehoboth beaches. Canadian whisky schooners targeted the Philadelphia and New Jersey markets via the bay. For instance, on November 10, 1927, Coast Guardsmen seized the ‘Charles Edwards,’ a vessel from Nova Scotia, off Delaware’s Cape Henlopen, containing $200,000 worth of fine liquors. 

Rum-runners employed recently invented hydroplanes to transport “case goods” from incoming ocean steamships. These ships anchored in the mid-bay area, referred to as ‘rum row,’ where they fell beyond the reach of the law.  

The Coast Guard targeted one such craft, ‘The Helena’ as a significant asset. Built specifically for rum-running, the 45-foot-long hydroplane had deep, spacious hatches and a draft of only 3-½ feet when fully loaded. “The Helena”, capable of speeds exceeding 30 knots, moved contraband swiftly and efficiently. 

Reedy Island, just offshore from Port Penn, sometimes posed perilous situations to nearby Guard patrols. In bad weather, the partially concealed jetty connecting Reedy Island to shore vanished entirely from sight. This danger caused accidents like Cutter No. 211’s sinking in a dense January 1930 fog.  

Unyielding Integrity Amidst Temptation

Criminal syndicates employed “pay off men” to engage in bribery, but the Coast Guard stood firm. “The Coast Guard cannot be bought,” asserted Commander Edward S. Addison, the commandant of section base no. 9 in Cape May, NJ. He shared instances where one Coast Guard boatswain was offered $5,000 “just to ease up a little” and another $10,000 to “close his eyes for a while.”  

However, there were law officials who did not resist. In a 1950 court trial where he testified as a defense witness, pay-off man John “Chick” Callahan revealed his involvement with Joseph H. Reinfeld’s criminal organization. Reinfeld directed Callahan to travel from northern New Jersey to Cumberland County “to make arrangements with the sheriff down there.”  

According to Callahan, the mob was compelled to arrange a ‘fix’ to unload its bootleg liquor along South Jersey’s bay coast. The arrangement circumvented the blockade on the North Jersey shoreline. 

Did the end of Prohibition eliminate rum-running in Delaware Bay? No. “Speedboats loaded with fine imported wines are not seized daily as they used to be”, The News Journal reported in 1935, “but alcohol smuggling continues a thriving business for syndicates which now try to cheat the government of taxes.” 

Prohibition aimed to eliminate intolerable abuses caused by the saloon. However, it unintentionally nurtured a new set of intolerable abuses, including rum-running, official corruption, graft, and racketeering. 

Coast Guard agents with captured moonshine, 1925. Library of Congress
Coast Guard agents with captured moonshine, 1925. Library of Congress

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *