The Great Big Sea "The Old Black Rum"

On this Day:

March 22, 1929, a US Coast Guard vessel sinks a Canadian schooner suspected of carrying liquor. But you can bet your bottom dollar that wasn’t the first or the only Canadian boat smuggling demon rum into the USA…

In the 1920s fishermen from the Maritime Provinces could no longer make a living fishing due to over-supply and poor prices, so most took their vessels and became involved in the rum-running trade to support their families. For years Nova Scotia was the centre for liquor traffic; Halifax, Lunenburg and Yarmouth were the three large ports in mainland Nova Scotia during the rum running era. The liquor came to these ports and left there by boat, sea plane, automobile, trucks, horse and wagon or by rail, where it was shipped as cargoes of fish or lumber.

In 1925 large cargos of contraband liquor landed at the North West Arm and the Bedford Basin, where rum runner headquarters were established. The south shore of Nova Scotia has hundreds of islands off shore which made it a perfect place for the rum-runners because they could hide their boats and liquor in one of their many coves.

St. Pierre and Miquelon were French owned islands off the southwest coast of Newfoundland coast and that was where most of the liquor was shipped from, especially whisky. The liquor was imported from Europe, the Caribbean and Canada. The island warehouses were supplied with West Indies rum, French Champagne, British gin and Canadian Whiskey, all waiting for the rum runners to distribute their precious load. The islands dock was often crowded with up to 40 or more vessels waiting to fill their hulls with liquor.

The liquor load was transferred from St. Pierre into the rum runner’s boat, or the load was taken from a larger ship anchored nearby. The authorities could not arrest the captain or crew from these larger ships because the ships were docked outside a twelve mile limit (later it was changed to three). The smugglers also used seaplanes to help with their cause. Small fast boats then would take the liquor, usually under the cover of darkness to shore, where horse and wagon, cars or trucks would immediately transport it to various locations. The back seats of cars were removed and the interiors were filled with as much liquor as they would hold. The cars had to be fast to out-run the custom officers who lie in wait for them most nights and gun shots could be heard on numerous occasions.

In 1925 smugglers were so numerous, that they were actually in each-others way. Rum running was extremely dangerous work, both on the sea and the land. The runners had to be creative in order to outrun the coast guard cutters, the police and the hijackers, sometimes while being peppered with bullets.

One famous rum runner schooner called “I’M ALONE” was built for a Boston man, who was serving time in jail at the time. He named his boat “I’M ALONE” because after breaking away from a run running gang, he wanted people to know that he was working alone. The ship was described as having the best quality workmanship. It was 125 feet long and 27 feet wide with twin hundred-horse power diesel engines.

The schooner was sold in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia in September 1928 by Jamie Clark who was representing two New York bootleggers. Thomas Randall, a Newfoundlander, was hired to be the Captain. In March 1929 when, at the end of a rum running trip to Louisiana, the schooner was chased by the cutter “Walcott” and Captain Randall was ordered to stop which he ignored. Randall continued to head for a destination off the Mexican coast. Another cutter called the “Dexter” now was chasing the rum runner and when Randall continued to disobey orders to stop, the Dexter opened fire and sent 20 rounds through the rigging, sails and hull of the Schooner.

After the Randall still refused to stop the Dexter sent 60 to 70 shots into the ship, breaking windows and blowing the engines to pieces. Surprisingly none of the crew was injured but the ship was flooding quickly and domed to sink. The captain and crew jumped overboard and were picked up by the cutter while the schooner “I’M ALONE” sank below the waves. One crew member of the schooner, named Leon Mainguy drowned when the ship sank. The captain and crew were taken to the Custom House at New Orleans where they were imprisoned but later released.

The “Silver Arrow” was another run-runner, described as a small boat only 40 feet long. In 1933, the crew were unloading liquor, close to shore, just outside the Lunenburg Harbour, when a coast guard cutter approached. A Canadian agent named “Machine Gun” Kelly blasted the “Silver Arrow” with his machine gun. Billie Tanner was shot in the head and died immediately. The rum-runner was seized and hauled into Lunenburg.

Rumrunning boats were built, repaired and supplied here in Nova Scotia. New York gang leaders came here to purchase their vessels. Americans maintained agents and contact men in Halifax to organize the rum-running activities and a few key mobsters visited Halifax and St. Pierre to check on their operation. Well known mobster, Al Capone was rumoured to visited different cities in Canada as well as St. Pierre. Dutch Shultz, another gangster, visited Halifax and stayed at a rooming house on Argyle Street.

In 1925, the Canadian Protective Service of the Customs and Excise Department distributed fifteen patrol vessels to cover the Atlantic coast and the St. Lawrence River. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police took over this duty in 1932. The Coast Guard ships had only powerful searchlights to help them spot the rum runner’s boats, as there were no radars then. The Coast Guards were also equipped with a machine gun mounted on the bow of their boat. The rum-runners had fast boats to their advantage and when the Coast Guards came too close they would create smokescreens hiding their boats, enabling them to escape.

In 1927 several new rum-chaser boats were brought in to help the cause. Two of the boat called the “Behave” and the “Beebe” were unloaded in the Halifax Harbour from flat cars at Deep Water and taken to the Dockyard where they were moved to the King’s Wharf. These new boats had a speed of thirty-eight miles per hour and had larger fuel tanks. They also had mounted machine guns on their bow.

Several of the new fast crafts were stationed at posts along the coast. The Bay of Fundy got three additional boats to guard the coast. Five sub-stations: Ingramport, Chester, Barrington, Canso and Pictou each were equipped with a new rum-chaser. Plans at that time were underway for an additional fleet for Cape Breton.

In September 1926 Authorities raided a place in Tantallon and confiscated a large quantity of smuggled liquor hidden by the rum runners. They moved the liquor to Smith’s barn in Glenhaven and two Customs Officers by the name of John O’Neil and John Flemming were left to guard the booze, until the Royal Canadian Mounted Police could pick up the cargo the next morning. Shortly after midnight, “Wild Archie” McLellan, a Glace Bay boxer and his gang of fifteen rum runners decided to regain their confiscated liquor.

The Customs Officers were hopelessly out numbered. The rum runners opened fire on the barn, keeping open a barrage for upwards of half an hour. The firing was so heavy, about 50 shells were found around the barn the next morning. The Customs Officers had only one gun and were powerless to meet the attack. Finally the Customs men were forced to seek shelter under the hay when the door to the barn was broken open by one of the raiders. At least fourteen kegs of rum were taken by the gang.

In order to prevent the Customs Officers from getting help from the authorities in Halifax, telephone lines were cut and attempts were made so that the Customs men could not use their cars. It took some time before the city was notified and the Mounties arrived to help, but by that time “Wild Archie” and his gang of rum runners, along with their booze were not to be found, even after an extensive search of the area. Miraculously no one was injured or killed during the gun battle.

Not long after the brazen attack at the Smith’s barn, the smugglers goods were once again seized by the Mounties near the properties of the Dauphinee family of Glen Haven. The liquor was found in two different locations. The first cache was found about 40 feet from the fence between the Dauphinee’s in a cleverly concealed tunnel, which was camouflaged with growing soil over the board plank trap door. The second cache was even larger than the first and was found about 100 feet from the fence. This dug out was concealed by some growing brush which had been pulled out of the ground and thrown over the trap door. The liquor was then brought into the city of Halifax late at night in motor transports and was placed in the Customs House.

After that incident, a reign of terror existed in the small villages around the area. The villagers were divided, some were tired of the rum smuggling happening in the community and wanted to help the Customs Officers stop the activity, while others were against telling authorities anything and shouted, “There ain’t going to be any squealers living here!” The villagers expected that blood would flow, so strong was the division. Former friends became bitter enemies. People of the shore village were afraid to tell of the smuggler’s activities, because they were threatened that their house would be burnt down (per

First, a Story:

What do you call a person who moves illegal alcohol without using magic?

A smuggle

Second, a Song:

Great Big Sea was a Canadian folk rock band from Newfoundland and Labrador, best known for performing energetic rock interpretations of traditional Newfoundland folk songs including sea shanties, which draw from the island’s 500-year Irish, Scottish, and Cornish heritage. The band was very successful in Canada, with eleven of their albums being certified Gold in the country, including four being certified Platinum and two achieving multi-platinum certifications. Between 1996 and 2016, Great Big Sea was the sixteenth best-selling Canadian artist in Canada and the sixth best-selling Canadian band in Canada.

While it has been confirmed that the band has officially retired, former members Alan Doyle and Séan McCann have continued performing in their own solo careers typically including music from Great Big Sea in their setlists (per Wikipedia).

Newfoundland’s most popular band celebrated their 20th anniversary (in 2013) with an intimate concert at Toronto’s Danforth Music Hall in November. CBC Music was on hand to record the party and now you can enjoy all of the fun courtesy of! This is their song: “The Old Black Rum”.  I hope you enjoy this!


Thought for the Day:

“Once, during Prohibition, I was forced to live for days on nothing but food and water.” – W. C. Fields

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Have a great day!

Dave & Colleen

© 2022 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky

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