Rumrunners' Paradise: Spokane During Prohibition

New Year's Eve, 1915, was a celebration like no other in Washington State history. A party to end all parties. Crowds packed every restaurant and saloon. This would be the "last call" before statewide prohibition would be enacted, four years before national prohibition!

At the stroke of midnight, every saloon in the state would be out of business. Millions of dollars of revenue from the liquor industry would cease to exist. But even as saloon keeper Dutch Jake fired his famous canon to salute the beginning of the new "dry" year, a lucrative "wet" underworld was forming in Spokane and the Inland Empire, a Rumrunners Paradise, where many otherwise honest citizens turned into overnight felons.

 

Watch RUMRUNNERS' PARADISE on PBS. See more from KSPS Documentaries.

 

Watch Online
The new documentary tells the story of how prohibition spawned a whole slew of lawbreakers in the Pacific Northwest, most of who, unlike the gangland mobsters in the east, had never engaged in criminal activity before. These new overnight felons- rumrunner, bootleggers and moonshiners regarded themselves simply as entrepreneurs filling a legitimate demand for liquor. Once prohibition was over, most went back to being law abiding citizens.

The proximity of Spokane to Canada made it a perfect location to become a major center for distributing illegal liquor. Rumrunners crossed over the border of British Columbia, through what was coined "Whiskey Gap", to buy heavily taxed whiskey from government export houses. Despite the costs and risks, rumrunner found exorbitant profits could be made for their efforts. One rumrunner claimed to make $2,500 for a mere three days work.

Buying booze was relatively easy in Spokane and could be an interesting experience as well. One story states that in "Trent Alley" one could walk along and drop your money down a hole and a hand would reach up and give you a drink. One women who lived near a golf course turned her home into a beer parlor. As thirsty golfers finished up their rounds, she would provide them with beer served in tomato cans.

Enforcement officers did little to stop the flow of liquor traffic. Many for mercenary reasons looked the other way allowing a never ending steam of whiskey and beer into the area. There was a saying in Spokane, "If you want a drink, go see the three wise men-- the cabdriver, the policeman and the bootblack".

Historians and authors contributing to the documentary include Dr. Dale Soden, Whitworth College; Bill Stimson, Eastern Washington University; Dr. William Rorabaugh, University of Washinton; Stephen Moore, Central Washington University;  Jim Kershner, Jim Price, and Tony Bamonte.