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Mackinaw City at the Heart of Northern Michigan Rum Running

The 110-foot USRC Mackinac, later USCGC Mackinac, was built in Baltimore, MD in 1903. It was stationed in Sault Ste. Marie and served the United States Revenue Cutter Service from 1903 to 1915 and in the United States Coast Guard from 1915 to 1917 and again from 1919 to 1939, patrolling the Straits of Mackinac for rum running. 

By Russell M. Magnaghi

Today as you stand on the south shore of the Straits of Mackinac looking at the iconic bridge spanning the Straits, you can hardly imagine the activity on water and land as people sought to evade the national Prohibition law. Passed by popular vote in Michigan in May 1918, the amendment to the U.S. Constitution went into effect in 1920.

At the time Mackinaw City was a tourist destination lined with resorts. The summer resorters wanted refreshment and thus provided a market for local bootleggers or distillers. Illegal liquor was made locally within Mackinaw City, neighboring towns and on farms. Since the economy was poor at the time this was an easy way to bring in cash. Stills popped up in every hidden spot. Although the newly formed Michigan Constabulary, later known as the State Police, tried their best to end the business it was a losing proposition. The liquor poured through the countryside. The Bootlegger House at 212 Jamet was home to a widow who supported her family by selling illegal liquor out of the house.

To the north was Canada where liquor literally poured into the United States. Again private individuals with fast speedboats picked up the liquor, many times aided by young Coast Guardsmen, brought it through the labyrinth waterways of the St. Mary’s River. Mackinac Island, across the Straits from Mackinaw City, was the staging area. Liquor reached the Grand Hotel much to the delight of guests who also enjoyed gambling. Liquor landed at the island was then shipped south to Capone in Chicago and to the Purple Gang in Detroit. However Mackinaw City was the terminus of the notorious Purple Gang’s run running highway north.

Across the Straits at St. Ignace, a fellow known as Black Jack was an outlet for Canadian rye whiskey. He operated quietly using his home as a front selling maple syrup. When raided at one point by Treasury agents they wanted to know who would buy 36 bottles of maple syrup? Black Jack naturally had no idea except that they were eating piles of pancakes.

On the Straits boats plied their illegal cargoes. Sometimes coal caring boats had liquor stored in sacks beneath the coal. At one point in May 1928 the Coast Guard chased the Geronimo loaded with 4,000 cases of liquor worth $250,000 on its way to Chicago. It was in the wee hours of the morning and the captain thought either he could outrun the cutter or he would be lost in the mist. The captain refused to stop; the Coast Guard fired a warning shot, and then disabled the vessel west of the straits. Two years later it was seized again, this time loaded with $600,000 worth of booze. The placid and magnificent Straits was busy during the era of Prohibition.

For those seeking bars and restaurants with Prohibition connections within a short drive (or boat ride) from Mackinaw City should check The Antler’s in Sault Ste. Marie, which was an ice cream parlor but never ordered a gallon of ice cream; Horn’s Bar and Restaurant on Mackinac Island, which had an ice cream parlor on the first floor and a speakeasy on the second floor, and Hessel E.J. Mertaugh Boat Works in Hessel, which once sold fast speed boats that brought liquor from Canada.

Russell Magnaghi, noted and award-winning historian of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, is the author of “Prohibition in the Upper Peninsula: Booze & Bootleggers on the Border” published in 2017 by The History Press. He is a graduate of the University of San Francisco and St. Louis University, and retired from Northern Michigan University after teaching for 45 years.