From Narragansett Bay: A Friend's Perspective by Stuart O. Hale
With peace in Europe after World War I, a bizarre chapter in the story
of Narragansett Bay began. It was to last 14 years, a period of unparalleled
smuggling, piracy, murder, and lawlessness. New words were added to the
American vocabulary, such as “hijacking,” “speakeasy,” “home brew,” “rum-running,”
and “rum row.” America's experiment with Prohibition strained the country's
moral fiber and consolidated the operations of organized crime. Narragansett
Bay was not immune.
Although the National Prohibition Act was passed in October 1919 and
the United States Coast Guard set up its defenses against smuggling by
sea in 1920, Americans refused to take the prohibition against alcoholic
beverages seriously. Breaking the law became the norm for many; speakeasies
sprang up, and stable, conservative “pillars of the community” made dandelion
wine and beer in the cellar and served “bathtub gin” to their guests.
Smugglers of every variety brought imported liquor over the back roads
of the Canadian border amid bottled goods in sacks into the coves and
estuaries along both the Atlantic and the Pacific Coasts.
The rum-runners were a motley crew who met a fleet of tramp steamers,
New England and Canadian fishing schooners, steam yachts, and even tugboats
that sailed from islands off Newfoundland, from Bermuda, and from the
Stories of the rum-running days on Narragansett Bay exist in every waterfront
community. The rum-runners sometimes used a beach-front summer estate
in the owner's absence as a transfer point. In one case, so the tale goes,
an absentee owner checking up on his property found an envelope stuffed
with hundred-dollar bills in his mailbox. He tucked it in his pocket and
went back to the city. A month later he found a similar envelope. Month
after month he went down to the shore to collect his “rent,” but never
saw his tenants.
A two-story house situated near the mouth of the West Passage was built
especially for the smuggling business. It is only a few feet from the
shore. A grape arbor masks a driveway leading down to a basement garage
of proportions suitable for a large truck. An adjacent basement room has
a tunnel entrance leading from a stone and concrete pier, which once extended
into the Bay. The tunnel is now blocked up and only vestiges of the pier
remain. On the second floor a large recreation room has a dormer window
providing an excellent view up and down the Bay and a huge mahogany hotel
bar complete with brass footrail and mirrors. According to the present
owner, the land-based associates of the rum-runners parked their truck
in the basement and whiled away their time at the second floor bar until
their lookout reported that a cargo was arriving at the dock. Then they
went downstairs and quickly transferred the liquor from the boat through
the tunnel to the truck in the basement.
At times, fishing boats were successfully used as rum-running craft,
a layer of fish covering the contraband in the hold, and one Bay rum-runner
is reported to have designed a submersible vehicle to hold his cargo.
It was towed behind his fishing boat, which then gave the appearance of
a dragger pulling a net through the water. One local shellfish dealer
reportedly did very well in disguising his stocks of liquor bottles by
hiding them in barrels under thick layers of quahaugs.
One of the most successful rum-running boats in Narragansett Bay was
the Black Duck. On December 28, 1929, Boatswain Alexander C. Cornell
left the Coast Guard base at New London, and tied up at dusk to The Dumplings
bell buoy. He turned off his lights and waited. Offshore, the Black
Duck, loaded with 383 sacks of liquor from a British vessel, approached
the entrance to the Bay.
As the rum-runner neared the patrol boat, Cornell turned on his searchlight
and ordered it to stop with his Klaxon horn. No one was visible on the
Black Duck, but it increased its speed. Cornell ordered a crewman
to fire his machine gun across the stern of the rum-runner just as the
Black Duck swerved sharply to port. Bullets raked the pilot house
of the rum-runner as it disappeared into the night. Minutes later, the
Coast Guardsmen heard the craft returning, and it suddenly loomed up alongside
piloted by a man with a bullet hole through one hand. The other three
crew members had been killed instantly.
The Black Duck became a familiar sight to many Rhode Islanders
from that time on. It was repainted and joined the Coast Guard as patrol
boat CG 808.
Hale, S.O. 1988. Narragansett Bay: A Friend's Perspective. Rhode
Island Sea Grant, Narragansett, R.I. 130 pp.
Narragansett Bay: A Friend's Perspective can be viewed on-line