Prohibition in Rochester

Prohibition in Rochester

Some people drink socially, others, well they just drink. If you consider yourself part of the latter you may have a bit of a drinking problem. It’s alright though, no need to feel ashamed. I’m sure that you are more than a little familiar with a time period in America known as the “Prohibition Era.”

The muckity-mucks down in D.C. decided that this beautiful country of ours had a collective drinking problem, so in 1919 they made the production, sale, and distribution of all alcoholic beverages illegal.

The original idea was that alcohol was a detriment to the population and was hindrance to the American way of life. It was believed that all other industries would thrive if alcohol were removed from the picture, and also that crime would decrease as well. Needless to say they were way off the mark with that one.

The American government reported record breaking losses in revenue during that time period. Approximately $11 billion in loss revenue. The loss in jobs due to the closing of bars, breweries, and distilleries meant less money in circulation. The ban had an adverse affect and all industries actually suffered. Prohibition also gave rise to a wave of bootlegging operations across the country. The men from the now closed legal liquor manufactures that had the knowledge and know how could produce the hard stuff on their own. No bootlegger was more notorious than Al Capone. He made millions every year from his illegal operations. From smuggling to manufacturing, he did it all. Prohibition is what mad his name synonymous with the term gangster.

What about Rochester? What was this city like when booze was illegal? How did this place survive? Never fear! I’ve the answers you seek. In part one of this editorial on Rochester during the prohibition era we will talk about the closing of Genesee brewery and the rise of local bootleggers during what was called “The Noble Experiment”, and more commonly know as prohibition.

It all started with the 18th amendment. The Genesee brewery closed it doors. While some breweries turned to making dyes, pottery, and even ice cream, Genesee simply shut down. There was no shortage of alcohol though. People all over this fair city began distilling alcohol on their own. There were nearly 1500 breweries in Rochester before prohibition. The number of speakeasies in the city after the 18th amendment went into effect was thought to be double that figure or more. In total over $300 million was spent nation wide enforcing the ban on alcohol. It seemed that no matter how many of these bootleg brewers were shut down the flow of outlaw spirits would not stop.

On August 29, 1929 The Rochester Herald headline read, “Oh, Thirsty Ones!There’s 20,000 Gallons Here!” No this was not a brazen ad for some sort of illegal liquor extravaganza. Special Internal Revenue Bonded Warehouse Number Five, as it was affectionately known, was in fact the exact opposite. There were thousands of gallons of alcohol for sure, but it was all confiscated contraband. Yes, all illegal wine & spirits taken into custody from Rochester and the surrounding area was brought to 162-164 Andrews st. in the heart of downtown. It was believed to have held a store of good ol’ Rochester rotgut that was valued in the millions. Not all that was held within those walls was home grown. Some was fresh from our neighbors to the north.

Being so close to the Canadian border it was an inevitable fact that more than a few people would attempt to get a bit of moonshine across the border. The men and women that took this risk were known as “Rum Runners”. According to the Library of Great lake Ontario Braddock’s bay was a popular drop off point on the American side of the lake. This was due to the maze of marshes and channels in the area. Odenbach’s and The Elmheart were popular resorts in the bay and were thought to be in on the action.

There was an late night incedent in 1927 off of the east shore of Lake Ontario in which the Coast Guard had a run in with what was believed to be a group of rum runners. The Coast Guard noticed a light on the shore and spotted a ship. When commanded to stop the ship and it’s passengers made a hasty escape. The Guard fired shots that were returned in kind but were never able to catch the twilight toddy traffickers.

The Prohibition era was a raucous one indeed. The affects of which would be felt for decades to come. The rum runners and bootleggers were just one part of the equation. Up next: Speakeasies! Supply and demand, after all some one had to be drinking all of this felonious fire-water.