Since Repeal Day was this week I wanted to give all of you a little more information about the era. These Detroit facts about prohibition and repeal provide a glimpse of a very wet time in our history.
The City on a Still
In the 1930s, Detroit housed more than 20,000 speakeasies, equating to one for every thirty people. It is no wonder that the wettest city during prohibition was called The City on a Still. It appears that Michigan got a jump on the rest of the nation when the sale of alcohol was banned in Michigan three years before the 18th Amendment passed. Many people do not realize that prohibition was enacted and repealed at different times by different states. Mississippi was the first state to enact prohibition on January 8, 1918. New Jersey did not follow until March 9, 1922, later than the federal law on January 17, 1920. As I mentioned last week, Michigan was the very first state to vote for repeal.
A pipeline into Chicago
Illegal alcohol was a powerful industry in Detroit and was ranked second only to the automobile industry, Detroit was estimated to employ 50,000 people in the illegal alcohol trade. Because of its proximity to Canada, liquor was transported over the border by box car, speedboat, and truck. In the winter, it would often be transported by sled. The river was filled with boats of all sizes that became known as the Mosquito Fleet. A small boat owner could make about $65 daily with a few back-and-forth runs. 50 cents per case hauled across the river was a good living and could earn smugglers around seventeen thousand dollars a year when the average income was just shy of five thousand dollars a year. As much as 80 percent of the nation’s illegal booze came through Detroit. Much of it would travel straight through to Chicago because of the dubious partnership of the Capone organization with Detroit’s notorious Purple Gang. Illegal liquor profits on both sides of the bridge partially funded the cross-border Ambassador Bridge. The Ambassador Bridge opened on November 11, 1929.
Smuggling before prohibition
A Detroit grocery store owner and distiller named Hiram Walker bought cheap land in Windsor, Canada. Because of the falling U.S. dollar during the Civil War, Canadian whiskey was smuggled across the river in great quantities. The profit available to the smugglers was exploited over many years. This created a precedent for river smuggling later when prohibition became the law of the land.
During prohibition, Sam Bronfman, through his Seagram Company, dominated smuggling across the porous border. Like his Hiram Walker competition, Sam bought a defunct American distillery and had it rebuilt in Canada. After prohibition, when tariffs became a problem, Branfman moved directly into partnership with National Distillers in America. Through shrewd acquisitions of distilleries, brands, and whiskey stocks, Seagram controlled 25 percent of the US liquor market by 1947.
Detroit had an illegal industry producing 300 million dollars a year, and willing producers located one mile across the Detroit River. If the shipment was marked destined for a country other than the U.S., the Canadian government looked the other way. A rowboat could load up on beer or liquor and tell the authorities that he was delivering to Cuba. That rowboat went directly to the U.S. to unload its contraband.
People of the time remarked that it was easier to get a drink in Detroit during prohibition than after its repeal. I hope you enjoyed this short look at prohibition and repeal history in my native state of Michigan.