Rum Running on the Great Lakes

It’s finally about warm enough to get my boat out and do some fishing.  Which reminds me of some interesting facts I’ve read about The Great Lakes and rumrunners.  Reel in a barstool and I’ll cast a few facts your way.

  • Rumrunning

Rumrunning is the act of illegally transporting alcohol from one place to another over a body of water.  As opposed to bootlegging, which is land-based.  It was dubbed rumrunning because a notable amount of this activity took place in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico region, where the most popular contraband was rum from the Caribbean Islands.  However, travel north about 1500 miles and you’ll find some very large bodies of water called the Great Lakes.  They too were notorious travel routes for illegal booze being smuggled into the U.S. during the years of Prohibition.  Instead of rum, however, drinks such as whiskey, brandy, and lots of beer floated these guys’ boats.

There were even reports of airplanes being used to transport booze over the lakes, despite aviation still being in its infancy at the time.  We can only wonder, if all of this had taken place a decade or so later in history, would Bar Stool Talk be sharing facts about “spirit flying” over America’s borders during Prohibition, or is this just flying over your heads?  Moving on, let’s take a look at all five of the Great Lakes and a quick glimpse into their rum-running history.

  • Lake Superior

Lake Superior is not only the largest of the Great Lakes but the largest lake in the world by surface area with 31,700 square miles of open water.  Despite its great size, its shores are not home to many large cities.  It is mostly home to small fishing, trading, or shipping communities, alongside resort towns where the wealthy enjoy sailing and vacationing.  Therefore, the alcohol in demand on these shores was of top-shelf quality during Prohibition.  This allowed larger profit margins for rumrunners with smaller shipments, and with the lakes enormous area surface area, law enforcement stood little chance detecting them.  Making Lake Superior the superior choice for small-time criminals wanting to make fast cash without having to quit their day jobs or risk fines or jail time.


  • Lake Michigan

Lake Michigan is the only one of the Great Lakes that is doesn’t border Canada.  However, Lake Michigan does have the most populated shoreline.  Today, it is estimated to have around 12 million people living on or near its shores, which made it a hot spot for big crime during Prohibition.  Large shipments of beer and liquor were constantly being smuggled into the ports of majors cities such as Milwaukee Wisconsin, Green Bay Wisconsin, Gary Indiana, and the most notorious of them, Chicago Illinois.  Home of the famous Al Capone,  Chicago got a lot of attention from the press and law enforcement.  However, no lake was able to move more illegal liquor then the next one on our list.

  • Lake Huron

Lake Huron is the 2nd largest of the great lakes by surface area but holds the number one position when it comes to the shoreline with over 3800 miles of it.  Lake Huron was responsible for an estimated 75% of all the illegal alcohol smuggled into the U.S. during Prohibition.  Most of the action took place on the Detroit River flowing between Detroit Michigan from Windsor Canada.  This narrow stretch of water was nicknamed the Hooch Highway, leaving the rest of the lake fairly quiet as far as rumrunning went.  From there a lot of it would then be distributed elsewhere throughout the nation via bootleggers.  Detroit became ground zero for Prohibition officers and other law enforcement agencies trying to stop the flood of illegal liquids entering the States, and many conflicts ensued.

  • Lake Erie

Lake Erie is the southernmost of the Great Lakes with its main outlet being responsible for Niagara Falls.  Although not as active as Detroit, one hotspot for rumrunning on Lake Erie was Erie, Pennsylvania.  From there, alcohol could quickly be shipped east to the big cities on the coast or south to industrial regions in and around Pittsburgh.  With a greater distance to travel over water and the formation of the modern Coast Guard to contend with, these rumrunners used modified dart boats to make their runs.  These boats could sometimes reach speeds of over 50 miles per hour, simply outrunning the law in a straight line.  The reputation of these dart boats spread quickly, helping their manufacturer, the Indian Lake Boat Company, gain worldwide recognition.

  • Lake Ontario

Lake Ontario is the smallest of the Great Lakes and is located the farthest east.  Lake Ontario is thought to perhaps play a role in the uncertain origins of the phrase “roaring twenties.”  Some people believe it may be a reference to the sometimes choppy water of the lake that can put out a roaring sound at times.  How this is connected to rumrunning brings us to the Bay of Quinte, on Lake Ontario.  With hundreds of registered fishing boats and vessels, a sizable percentage of fisherman saw an opportunity to supplement their incomes by smuggling mostly beer from Canada back home to New York.  It turns out, however, that the waters weren’t the only thing choppy about this business.  Rumrunning on this lake cost many lives, either by accident or foul play with some dangerous characters lurking the roaring waters of Lake Ontario.

  • Summary

Obviously, all this information is barely a ripple in the whole story of Rumrunning on the Great Lakes, but I hope it gave you an idea of the scale of this illegal enterprise that took place during Prohibition.  With so many other stories and information that didn’t make it on this page, I’ve left links to other articles I’ve read about each lake if you care to learn more.

I better pay my tab and get home before it gets too late.  I hope to have my boat on the water at the break of dawn tomorrow morning.  Thanks for reading, see you next week.


Rumrunning on Lake Superior: The Arbutus Story

Lake Michigan Beer Runners: A Prohibition Story

Rumrunning Between Amendments

Prohibition: Erie’s Rebellion

Quinte area rum runners help put the roar in the “Roaring Twenties”

Live Science – used for lake facts.

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