Prohibition: Booze Routes to Spokane

  • By Laura Arksey
  • Posted 3/09/2011
  • Essay 9702
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During Prohibition, which began in Washington state on January 1, 1916, and ended in 1933, Spokane was a major center for receiving and distributing contraband liquor. Prohibition in the area spawned a whole group of lawbreakers most of whom, unlike the gangster bootleggers in large cities farther east, had never before engaged in criminal activity. These rumrunners, as they preferred to be called, regarded themselves simply as entrepreneurs filling a legitimate demand. They acquired their products mainly from Canada, where heavily taxed whiskey, beer and other beverages were sold in government export houses. Despite the costs and risks, rumrunners found the profits high enough to more than reward their efforts. Their modes of transport included automobiles, trains, pack horses, and even airplanes. Although a few Spokane rumrunners spent time in prison, by the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933, most had returned to a law-abiding life.

Rumrunners vs. Moonshiners

Rumrunners should not be confused with moonshiners, who distilled their own brews that ranged from fairly good to downright deadly. Mica Peak, in what was variously dubbed the Blue Ridge Mountains or Kentucky Mountains of Spokane County, was especially productive of moonshine. "Bottle men" would hike down the mountain trails carrying suitcases loaded with booze bound for Spokane hotels.

Many farmers in Eastern Washington also supplemented their meager incomes by making moonshine or hiding it for others. Within the city of Spokane, some private homes and business buildings also concealed moonshine operations. Even the basement of the City Hall stored "evidence" seized in raids for a curiously long time, with some of it going down the gullets of city employees rather than down the drain. In fact, the Spokane Press declared in a 1931 headline, "City Basement Wettest Spot in Spokane" (City). Raids on stills by the "Dry Squad" made for sensational headlines in the Spokane newspapers.

Overnight Felons

Rumrunners looked down on moonshiners, who supplied a less affluent level of society, were arrested more often, and tended to receive stiffer penalties when convicted. According to Spokane historian Tony Bamonte, Prohibition created a host of "overnight felons" involved on various levels in the liquor trade. If a rumrunner, bootlegger, or moonshiner was convicted, the sentence was likely to fit the "year and a day" rule of thumb. Anything over a year required incarceration in a state prison, so by imposing these slightly longer sentences, wily judges ensured that the county did not have to bear the expense of sending such offenders to the county jail.

When statewide Prohibition went into effect in Washington State on January 1, 1916, rumrunners began bringing liquor from Montana. The main route to Spokane was a somewhat primitive road over what later became Fourth of July Pass in the Idaho Panhandle. There was a particular booze rush in late 1918, as Montana was due to go dry on January 1, 1919. Clarence E. Reedy (d. 1938) of the Spokane valley was one such rumrunner, able to bring booze from Montana in his powerful Mitchell modified with false floorboards to hide up to 10 cases of liquor. When an accomplice, W. A. Rutherford of Wolf Lodge on Lake Coeur d'Alene, was found dead of wounds consistent with a severe beating on November 17, 1918, Reedy was accused of the murder but acquitted after a long and complex trial. The crime was never solved, and suspicion lingers that Reedy may have been involved.

Bringing In Canadian Booze

With nationwide Prohibition beginning in 1920, the trade from Canada became paramount. Although Canada had previously been dry, it quickly realized the advantage of repeal in order to foster a highly taxed American trade. Each Canadian province set up its own export houses, which charged a high duty of on all liquor destined for the United States. The export houses were not allowed to sell to Canadians, who had to buy their liquor from provincial liquor stores. The export houses were located in towns that had easy access to the United States, with departure points near mountain back roads off the beaten track of the U.S. border patrol.

Only U.S.-bound liquor was subject to the Canadian export duty. Seattle's premier rumrunner, police officer Roy Olmstead (1886-1966), was able to get around the duty by hiring ships in Vancouver, B.C., that were cleared for Mexico, then clandestinely unloading their cargoes in lonely coves around Puget Sound. No such option was available to the land-locked rumrunners of Eastern Washington, so they gladly paid the Canadian duties, which were more than offset by the high profits of sales in Spokane.

Driving Down Rum Road

One of these Spokane rumrunners of the 1920s was Edmund Fahey, a young man who moved from Montana in 1923 to take over his deceased stepfather's roadhouse just outside of town. His memoir, published in 1972, is a fascinating and comprehensive account of his adventures and misadventures in the illegal liquor trade. Upon taking over the tavern, he became dissatisfied with paying rumrunners $70 a case for Scotch whiskey that he could get himself for $36 at a Canadian export house and decided to become his own rumrunner. For two or three days' effort, he could realize a profit of $2,500.

Fahey found he needn't fear other rumrunners muscling in on him: "The majority of runners in this section were a decent type ... . Every man hauled for himself and himself only. There was no organized racket running the smuggling in our area. On several occasions some guy tried to move in and be a big shot, but, in true western fashion, his ambitions were always curtailed. It was under such conditions that I started my drive down rum road" (Fahey, 2). Fahey found, however, that there was no protection from hijackers, who, rather than risking the trip to Canada themselves, would waylay rumrunners, "in the knowledge that any victim who reported his loss would be subjecting himself to prosecution by the state" (Fahey, 89).

Fahey engaged an experienced helper, a one-armed driver-mechanic named Ray, "one of the most able drivers who ever forced a car with a load of booze, and very handy at repairs along the road" (Fahey, 2). In addition, Ray knew all the back roads of the border country and was well acquainted with farmers and ferrymen along the route who could be paid and trusted, as well as border officials who could be bribed.

Cars and Their Tires

Cars and tires were of utmost importance to the rumrunner. According to Fahey, who favored large, luxury Buicks modified with extra shock absorbers, springs, and reinforced floors:

"The rum smuggler put his cars through mechanical tests as tough as those devised by test drivers. Throughout the border country, you were calling on your car for the utmost, under all sorts of road and weather conditions, with loads far beyond those the car was designed to carry. In spite of the abuse we gave our cars, we knew how to take care of them. Also, we were good roadside mechanics ... . Tires were put to the severest possible tests. Heavy loads, hauled over the toughest of roads often at reckless speeds, kept the rubber on your car always under the utmost strain. Therefore, the rum smuggler at all times used the best tires that could be bought. In fact, several companies developed tires especially for the rumrunning trade. Many a runner served time in jail simply because his rubber failed him at some critical moment" (Fahey, 108).

The rumrunners' cars were invariably superior to those of the border agents and sheriffs. If the smuggler could not elude the officials of the law, which was the preferred strategy, he could usually outrun them. Fahey went unarmed, as he had no desire to get into a gun battle with an agent of the law during a chase or if apprehended. He was convinced that the ability to shoot could actually be a provocation. He may have been right, although the law often shot first. On June 4, 1926, newspapers carried an announcement that federal dry agents were henceforth ordered to use weapons only in emergency and to shoot only in self-defense because of the high number of fatalities "as a result of itching trigger fingers" (Dry). At that time, it was legal to shoot at suspected felons, a category into which all bootleggers, moonshiners, and rumrunners fell, and since the beginning of national Prohibition, 49 Prohibition officers and 92 persons involved in the liquor trade had been killed.

Harrowing But Profitable

Fahey took his maiden voyage as a rumrunner in December, 1923. In his big, powerful car, he and his helper Ray headed west to Wilbur, then north over the plateau to the precipitous gorge leading down to the Columbia River. At the ferry, Fahey learned from Ray to pay the ferryman five dollars instead of the usual 50 cents to ensure that he would rise at any time of night at a specified horn signal to take them across the river on the return trip. Their stopover for a meal, rest, and gas was the home of an Indian family on the Colville Reservation. From there, "With Ray at the wheel ... we started north on the narrow, snow-banked, icy, rutted road. For what seemed an eternity, we drove through mountainous country, mostly in second gear due to the slick ruts in the road [which] clung to a hillside 30 to 50 feet above an ice-coated creek below" (Fahey, 4).

Many harrowing but profitable trips followed. One especially dangerous one involved driving across a railroad trestle over the tumultuous Kettle River: "No sheet iron covered the spaces between the railroad ties. To cross it in a car was a hazardous adventure, requiring utmost alertness on the part of the driver. A single miscalculation with an automobile meant a drop into the churning river far below" (Fahey, 68).  On all of Fahey's runs, it was necessary to drive much of the route at night and, for considerable stretches, without headlights.

Bribability and Corruptibility

A rumrunner also had to be a good businessman and accountant, juggling contacts with and payments to a myriad of people along the route who provided supplies and places to store contraband, manned the ferries, or served as spotters to warn of the proximity of law enforcement. In addition, although most sheriffs and border officials were incorruptible, the trade could not exist without the cooperation of those who were not. The rumrunner had to plan his itinerary according to the bribability of officers along the route. Winning a district supervisor's cooperation was crucial to success. According to Fahey,

"The officer in charge of a certain area was the only individual with whom these shady dealings could be transacted. He detailed the men under him and knew their whereabouts at any given time. The regular patrolman never knew what section of the district he would be ordered to cover ... . In the pay-off arrangement, everything depended upon minutes, a good car, and durable tires. The bribed officer designated a certain road and time for jumping the line. Within a set time, the runner had to be clear of the officer's district. If for any reason he was detained beyond the set time, he was absolutely on his own, regardless of the pay-off" (Fahey, 49).

Fahey's relationship with some of these men and others in law enforcement became quite cozy. "After I had become known along the border, my roadhouse became a rendezvous where both Canadian and American border officials could relax when they were visiting Spokane for business or pleasure" (Fahey, 66). On one occasion, five taxicabs arrived at his roadhouse bearing 22 passengers, all of whom wore either a chief of police or sheriff's badge. They were lawmen from four states holding a convention in Spokane. "Without further ado, I extended the hospitality of the place ... . These law enforcement men surely were as deep in crime, quaffing their drink, as I was in serving them." (Fahey, 45, 46)

Running Out of Luck

The method of transport involving the most numerous and complex negotiations with accomplices was by train. Occasionally Fahey would transfer Canadian contraband onto a coal car in northern Montana, literally burying the booze under the coal. This strategy was not only dirty and tedious but involved paying off freight yard and train workers along the entire route to Spokane. One failure could result in the booze car being shunted to another destination or the contraband and its runner apprehended during loading or unloading. Fahey also resorted to using pack horses or even rafting contraband down rivers until it could be transferred to a prearranged car.

Fahey's luck did not last forever, however. He was eventually apprehended, spent six months in prison and paid a $2,000 fine. After his release, he did not return to smuggling, much to the relief of his wife, who had never approved of his involvement. In fact the golden age of such liquor rumrunning was waning, with the illegal liquor trade increasingly going to bootleggers and moonshiners. Even less lucky was Steve Parsons (d. 1924), "the king of Spokane rumrunners" (Parsons). He was killed on November 3, 1924, near Taft, Montana, when his loaded truck tipped over during a harrowing pursuit by law enforcement officers.

Flying High

Canadian liquor also arrived in Spokane by private airplane. Thomas Edgerton Moar (1896-1987), a veteran of World War I, acquired a Curtiss Jenny biplane after the war. The military disposed of these surplus planes by disassembling, then crating and shipping them, complete with instructions for reassembly. The mechanically astute Moar had no trouble putting his plane together and learning how to fly it.

During Prohibition, a number of Spokane aviators got into the business of running rum from Canada, aided by the Doukhobors. In 1908 these religious dissenters from Russia had set up a colony just across the Washington border in British Columbia. Some of their farms became pickup points for contraband Canadian whiskey going to Spokane by car as well as plane.

The Spokane rumrunners would fly at night, guided to a landing in a pasture or field by Doukhobors signaling with their automobile headlights. The export house purchase would be there awaiting pickup. Because these were simply farm fields, rather than proper landing strips, the planes were sometimes damaged upon landing. If a plane needed repairs before it could take off with its precious cargo, the Spokane airport (then at Felts Field) would receive a phone call and contact Thomas Moar, an airplane mechanic. Loaded with spare parts and tools, he would fly to the Doukhobor farm and make the repairs.

Although Thomas Moar was not himself a rumrunner, he surely contributed to the success of his aviator friends. He also profited from the enterprise and was good at keeping a secret. Moar's son recalled that his parents were friends with the sheriff at the time and "it was not uncommon for him to visit for dinner ...  and a beverage" (Shute, 38).

Speakeasies and Hot Spots

Upon arriving in the Spokane area, contraband liquor was dispersed in a number of ways besides sale in country roadhouses such as Edmund Fahey's. In 1994, a reporter for the Pacific Northwestern Inlander interviewed a number of Spokane old timers who remembered the prohibition era. Speakeasies, especially in basements, abounded in "Trent Alley," the seedy section of town near the Great Northern depot. Sam I. Huppin (1922-2008), owner of Huppin's Hi-Fi, Photo and Video at the time he was interviewed, recalled that when he was a newspaper boy in Trent Alley, "There used to be a place along the alley where you could walk along and drop your money down a hole. A hand would reach up and give you a drink" (Heald, 10). Pearl Keogh (1905-2000) reminisced about Jim Young's speakeasy in the same general area, "one of the hot spots. It was just off Browne between Trent and Main. He was upstairs. The socialites all patronized him, too" (Heald, 10).

Former police chief Clyde E. Phelps (1903-2003), who was 91 at the time of his interview, recalled that there was no problem getting whiskey by the drink in Spokane during Prohibition when he was still a cop on the beat. The police did little to curb the speakeasies; in fact, in some cases, they were patrons, as were many judges and prosecutors. Dorsey Griffin recalled that his father supplied whiskey to Frank Girand, a Spokane County judge in the 1920s. Now and then bootleggers were arrested, but the police were selective. Hubert Hoover (1906-1995), another Prohibition-era policeman, stated that the beat cops were "told by the city commissioner which ones [rumrunners] to leave alone" (Heald, 10).

Commellini the King

The aristocrat of Spokane liquor distribution during Prohibition was Albert Commellini (d. 1979), an Italian immigrant restaurateur who owned the Italian Import Company in the Trent Alley district. His distribution enterprise handled a significant amount of the bootleg liquor and moonshine that flowed into the city. He also dealt in the raw materials for making moonshine. The Spokane Press of January 15, 1925, reported that the Dry Squad had found 11 sacks of corn sugar and 48 empty gallon jars in a car parked behind Commellini's home at South 160 Browne. During Prohibition Commellini was arrested numerous times but showed an uncanny ability to avoid most of the consequences. In one instance, though a jury convicted him, a judge "took the case under advisement and dismissed the charge four months later" (Court). Officer Hubert Hoover recalled: "Albert Commellini was the kingpin here. He had a big Cadillac and would drive the streets all night long. He used to tell the commissioner which cops he wanted on the beat" (Heald, 11). Commellini more than survived the Prohibition era. His Commellini's Restaurant just north of the city was for decades thereafter one of the elite places to dine and a must for celebrity visitors to Spokane.

Needless to say, much of the high-quality liquor arriving in Spokane during Prohibition found its way to the cellars of the city's wealthy elite. The elegant, well lubricated private parties of the Prohibition era became firmly established in the lore if not the documented history of Spokane.

Sources: Norman H. Clark, The Dry Years: Prohibition and Social Change in Washington (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1965), 163-164; Edmund Fahey, Rum Road to Spokane (Missoula: University of Montana, 1972); Patrick Heald, "The Lawless Years: How a Defiant Spokane Stayed Wet During the Drought of Prohibition," The Pacific Northwest Inlander, July 6-12, 1994, pp. 8-11; Thomas Michael Holmes, "The Road to Prohibition and the 1918 Fourth of July Canyon Killing," Pacific Northwesterner, Vol. 51, No. 1 (April 2007), 4-90; Brian Shute, "Rum Running During the Prohibition Era," Nostalgia Magazine, Vol. 13, No. 1 (January-February, 2011), 34-40; "Parsons Dies in Montana," Spokane Press, November 3, 1924; "Dry Men Find Booze in Raw," Spokane Press, January 15, 1925; "Dry Agents Ordered to Stop Shooting Victims," Spokane Press, June 4, 1926; "Court Smiles Again Upon Commellini," Spokane Press, April 7, 1928; "City Basement Wettest Spot in Spokane," Spokane Press, September 28, 1931; Laura Arksey Interview with Tony Bamonte, Spokane, January 27, 2011.

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