The Coastal Post - December, 1995

Rum Running In West Marin


West Marin was the center of rum running in the days of Prohibition from 1918 to 1993. Ships carrying whiskey and rum from Canada and Mexico stood three miles off the coast and unloaded their precious cargo onto small boats which came out to them from Tomales Bay.

In Jack Mason's Point Reyes, the Solemn Land, there is a chapter titled "Booze on the Beach" in which he wrote, "Point Reyes winked at the Volstead Act," and goes on to describe how every inlet of Tomales Bay with a private wharf was used.

There were fewer people living around Point Reyes at that time, but they outnumbered the ever-fewer federal agents who were supposed to guard the area. The two agents who were quartered at Point Reyes Station were out-gunned and lived in fear of their lives.

A favorite game was to "leak" news and decoy the feds. Say that the news leaked was that a truckload of scotch was coming to Drake's Summit Road at 10:00 p.m. that night. The agents heard the news and crouched along the road to make the arrest. But the shipment were diverted to Tomales Bay where a sailboat ran the booze to Marshall and a waiting truck. The next night the smugglers might reverse the procedure, leaving the agents completely baffled.

There were a few immigrants in the area, Italian Swiss, Portuguese, and Irish, who knew how to make their own wine, which was OK. But the speakeasies, which had sprung up all around the area (for that matter, all over America) were under the control of a Marin County Under-Sheriff who arrested the man in charge of the speakeasy, hauled him off to jail, but the next day let him off after paying a fine of $200 or $250.

These were the days when records show that Smiley's Schooner Saloon in Bolinas painted its windows black, installed a barber shop behind the windows, with a speakeasy behind that. There is also a record of a Point Reyes Station bar doing the same thing. Of course, sooner or later these saloons were discovered by the under-sheriff, but when the next shipment came in, there's no doubt they braved the law again.

There was a mafia headquarters in Sacramento, and Point Reyes had its own mafia in the person of Vincent (Pegleg) Lucich, who seems to have gone from bad to worse once he started shooting at agents.

Mason writes, "On the night of May 21, 1930, he murdered handsome Nick Sturtevant as they sat together in an automobile parked along the road near Dillon Beach. Sturtevant was a hijacker who had been supplying Marin County millionaires with booze."

Lucich, arrested by the feds, won leniency by promising to squeal on his customers. He was sent to San Quentin for life, but got out on parole in 1947, evidently for squealing.

Everybody had his/her favorite story about rum running days, but Mason tells the story of Beryl Schreiber Jesperson who says: "I can remember a certain picnic of my family and two other families to Abbot's Lagoon. When we got to the beach area there was a huge box covered with shoe advertisements. On opening it we found 20 two-quart bottles of square-faced Holland gin, each wrapped in its straw package. I guess it was jettisoned because the prohis (federal agents) were hot on their trails. Mother hated liquor of any kind, so she played Carrie Nation and broke every bottle on a driftwood log. All the men just about wept. The irony is that several weeks later (evidently they were again at Abbot's Lagoon), one member of the party cut his foot badly. We happened to find one bottle partly intact and mother used the contents to sterilize the wound."

As time went on a couple of federal men were loathed in Point Reyes Station for charging several hundred dollars worth of guns, handcuffs and other items at a local store and then slipping out of town without paying a cent. It was said that one of them became a bootlegger himself on the strength of what he had learned while living around Tomales Bay.

Mason writes, "Towards the end of the Prohibition era the bootleggers, now more brazen, used a Navy-type launch painted black for night duty. Its cargo hold astern was roomy and its high-powered engine could be gunned to foil pursuit."

It was also told that the black hearse which was then used to take the cargo to San Francisco (via ferry) needed no protection, because the lugubrious-looking driver looked like no one you would suspect of transporting booze.

So the cities of San Francisco and Sacramento were supplied with booze from Tomales Bay and no one let on where they had gotten it.

There is a story about a Dodge truck whose motor stalled one night in 1924 on a steep grade at Slide Ranch, south of Stinson Beach. The truck was loaded with 30 cases of Johnny Walker and Perfection whiskey. When Sheriff J.J. Keating arrived, the driver had absconded, taking his registration card with him. He had apparently deserted his illegal cargo for fear of being caught.

If you talk to old timers in the area, they have many tales to tell about these rowdy yet romantic times when all the villages of West Marin shared in the days of rum running.