Federal Prohibition: 1919-1933

After almost a century of debates about the role of liquor in American society, the United States adopted the 18th Amendment in 1919, prohibiting the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.” For an area like the Champlain Valley where prohibition and temperance had been debated and legislated since the 1850s, the most important aspect of Federal Prohibition was that it removed all local control from the towns, counties, and states.

The region became known for cross-border and cross-lake smuggling of alcohol from Canada into the United States. Out-of-state crime networks trafficked alcohol, often with the help of local residents, to cities in New York and Massachusetts. Increases in crime and a rift between federal and local law enforcement followed, and by the end of the 1920s, public opinion in the region was very much against Prohibition. Merrit Carpenter, a Vermonter who worked for Lake Champlain Transportation Company during Prohibition, said it best, “Everybody knew who was doing it, but they never got caught. It was because the fellow who was the sheriff there knew he had to put up a show of looking for these guys, but he still had to live there.”

President Herbert Hoover called Prohibition the “noble experiment,” but history has demonstrated it to be more of a noble failure. With the adoption of the 21st Amendment in 1933, the era of Federal Prohibition officially ended and control over liquor regulation was returned to the states.

Above image: A group of friends having fun in the woods, ca. 1900-1910. Courtesy Vermont Historical Society.

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Driving to Drink

In a border region like the Champlain Valley, people interested in drinking legally would just drive to Quebec where drinking was still legal. Border Hotels, establishments just across the Canadian border that legally sold alcohol, became popular destinations for New Yorkers and Vermonters to reach by car.

Most of the alcohol smuggling also took place in cars, and massive quantities of contraband alcohol were confiscated each month. The border crossing at Rouses Point, NY, reported that it confiscated and destroyed 93,960 bottles of alcohol in September of 1924 alone. Customs officials broke the bottles and left the piles of glass in the town square park to make the point that smuggling would not be tolerated.

With this increased border traffic and need for searching cars, Federal Prohibition created the physical and conceptual border crossings as they are known today. Before Prohibition, border crossers would go to the nearest town and check in. But during Prohibition, the federal government created checkpoints directly on the border itself. Even with these checkpoints, only a fraction of the smuggled alcohol that crossed the border was confiscated.

Image: U.S. Customs officers pose with a car and confiscated alcohol at the U.S. Customs Station in Swanton, VT, 1923. Courtesy Vermont Historical Society.

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Drinking on the Line

To avoid the need to smuggle alcohol, some establishments went as far as locating themselves directly on the border itself. Called “line houses,” these cross-border hotels and bars were located in both New York and Vermont.

Lillian Fleury, known as Queen Lil, operated one of the best-known line houses and was one of the most colorful characters of Vermont’s Prohibition era. Born in Richford, Vermont, in 1866, she started her career travelling the country staging medicine shows and then worked at a brothel in Boston. She returned to Richford in 1911 and opened a 3-story line-house hotel that crossed the Canadian border. Known as the “Palace of Sin” or more commonly “Queen’s Place,” the lucrative hotel and business based on alcohol and prostitution was built by Queen Lil in plain sight. Through her vast contacts, she always seemed to know when a raid was coming and would simply move the booze to the Canadian side of the building (where it was legal). She was only caught once when Canadian and American authorities conducted a joint raid, and she was charged with keeping a disorderly house. She pled guilty, paid a mere $150, and re-opened the hotel shortly thereafter.

The Verte-Montagne, was a golf course that was proposed on the Canadian border between Lake Champlain and Lake Memphremagog. It advertised that, “the estate reaches across the Canadian border…and there, in a maple grove at “the 19th hole” of the golf course will rise an elaborate club house.” The “19th hole” was a wink to the bar being located in Canada, as golf courses only have 18 holes. Image: The Verte-Montagne cover, Courtesy Vermont Historical Society.

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The Lake Champlain Boat Patrol

While the majority of contraband liquor crossed the Canadian border by car, some smugglers also turned to Lake Champlain to transport alcohol illicitly. In 1924, the United States Customs Service created a specific branch to police the water: The Lake Champlain Boat Patrol.

Headquartered on St. Albans Bay, on the Vermont side of Lake Champlain, the Boat Patrol worked mainly at night with a 3-man crew on each boat. They searched the northern section of the lake, from the border to the Burlington area. A new style of boat itself was created specific for smuggling. Called the “Champlain Rum Boat,” the boat had side shelves on the bow to store alcohol. If smugglers were caught, they would push the booze into the lake and claim they were out for a midnight boat trip.

Image: Destroying whiskey and beer, 1923. Courtesy Library of Congress.

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