May 18th, 2022

Beaches Living Guide - Spring & Summer 2016

Stories We Tell

Bootleggers launch, Ashbridge's Bay, September 21, 1923 - Toronto Archives

Rum Running along Toronto's "Leaky" Border

Lake Ontario, beautiful as it looks, provided a way for smugglers to sneak alcohol over the border during prohibition in the 1920s. The stories provide a colourful aspect to Toronto's history, with characters right out of a Hollywood movie!

Such an event took place in October, 1923, right in the Beaches.

The location was a moonlit night on the normally quiet Ashbridge's Bay. A "rum schooner" called the Hattie C had arrived in the bay around midnight off Leslie Street. Aboard was 2,554 whisky bottles worth overs $20,000. Once reaching the shore (there was no spit in those days), the bottles were being put onto trucks, while a known mobster called Rocco Perri stood by watching.

But someone (we don't know who) tipped off the police! Toronto police at Pape Police Station rushed to the scene. They opened fire, killing one man and wounding another.

Readers of the Toronto Daily Star, the city's major paper in 1923, read about the heist the next morning.

"Toronto's waterfront is used by rum runners at nighttime to transfer their whisky cargoes..." the story reported, "But to catch the lawbreakers is another thing. The whiskymen know when to come and go – when Toronto has gone to bed and the waterfront is under a blanket of darkness." (Toronto Daily Star, Oct. 6, 1923)

Ontario Prohibition Union, A.H. Lyle, Reverend T.H. Bradley, R.S. Rodd, Dr. A.J. Irwin, March 10, 1931 - Toronto Archives

Such confrontations and violence connected with the illegal possession or transportation of alcohol was a common occurrence at the time. Because of the money at stake, the practice often involved corrupt police officers, organized crime and mobsters like the infamous Al Capone and Eliot Ness.

In both Canada and the United States, prohibition laws outlawed various aspects alcohol of manufacturing and consumption. Those supportive of prohibition referred to spirits as demon rum and wicked whisky.

But from 1920 to 1933, the United States was under even stricter prohibition than was Canada, where no one could manufacture, sell, or transport beer, wines, or spirits. This meant that smugglers would pack their ships full of alcohol from Canada, and then smuggle it into the US.

Rocco Perri, an early member of organized crime in Canada, made a fortune illegally exporting Canadian liquour from Canadian distilleries into the US. He was called the "King of The Bootleggers" in Canada, our very own Al Capone.

The boats were like "floating warehouses" with bottles often packed in burlap bags. Fishing or sailing schooners were used at first, but over time these boats were adapted for the sole purpose of smuggling. They were painted in drab colours so they didn't stand out, and they were made to lay low in the water so there was lots of cargo room. They'd make their way down the Niagara River in the darkness, and then return empty in broad daylight. Everyone knew what was going on but it was almost impossible to catch the smugglers!

Gooderham and Worts drawn by Thomas Young, 1835 - Toronto Public Library

As a result Canada was referred many times as having a "leaky border!"

One of our major alcohol producers, Gooderham & Worts, operated out of the Flatiron building at the corners of Church, Front and Wellington. Gooderham was one of the distilleries that periodically got into trouble for selling whisky to US rumrunners. Overall, however, the whisky export business during Prohibition was good for Toronto distiller Gooderham & Worts, as much of it ended up in the US!

"Captain John's" Ship Departs Toronto's Harbour, May 28, 2015

Captain John's Sails Off into the Sunset

For many years, Toronto had it's own "floating restaurant", better known as Captain John's Seafood Restaurant. It's history actually includes two different boats and a tale right out of a movie script.

The boat was brought to Toronto and opened as a restaurant in 1970 by John Lenik, who had escaped communist Yugoslavia and came to Canada in the 1950s. He brought with him a dream of opening a restaurant on the water. He finally found a small vessel called the M. V. Normac in Michigan; he bought it and sailed the Normac to Toronto. It was moored at the foot of Yonge Street and then converted into a restaurant. Many will recall it's bright red hull and white top.

At a time when our waterfront was mostly industrial, Captain John's was a pleasing sight. Plus during the seventies and eighties, there were very few seafood restaurants in the city. At Captain John's you could dine on the top deck eating lobster - a rare treat at the time.

Letnik soon added a larger cruise ship next to the Normac. But the Normac didn't last much longer. It was hit by the Toronto Ferry, the Trillium, in 1981 (with diners on board who escaped unharmed!) Even though the hole was repaired, the job wasn't done well! The boat actually sank and had to be retrieved and towed away.

Now left with the larger cruise ship, The "M. V. Jadran", John equipped it as the main restaurant, with the familiar sign and red and white colours. But the glory days started to fade. With mounting debt and back taxes, the restaurant was closed and the boat scrapped in May 2015.

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