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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Bootleggers and Rum Runners on the Mullica River

The HBO Cable Network has just finished televising its hit show, "Boardwalk Empire" this past week. The show was a fictionalized account of the reign of Nucky Johnson in Atlantic City, Atlantic County, and New Jersey politics during the prohibition era of the roaring twenties.

Bootlegging and rum running played a dominant role in the rise of Atlantic City as a tourist mecca and was emphasized in the HBO series.

Rum runners landing their cargo in small boats.
(Photo courtesy of Google Images.)

Since the New Gretna area is relatively close to Atlantic City, it is not surprising that rum running was prevalent along Great Bay and the Mullica River. Illicit cargo landed here could be easily transported to Atlantic City by car or truck along the Shore Road, now Route 9.

It's a short drive from the New Gretna area to Atlantic City
along Shore Road. (Map courtesy of Google Maps.)

For those of you out in the Blog-O-Sphere who doubt that the New Gretna area played a part in bootlegging and rum running during prohibition, the following 1924 newspaper article should erase your skepticism.



Bootleggers Caught After

Gun Fight in Great Bay

Early last Tuesday morning thru the fearless work of the captain of the Bonds Coast Guard Station, Captain Rogers and an equally brave crew of men composed of Percy Mathews, chief boatswain mate, Marsden Cranmer, chief mechanics mate, and Leslie Rogers, surfman, one of the largest hauls of contraband liquor ever taken in this section was captured. 170 cases of liquor, three boats, and one gun was the net result of the battle with the smugglers about of a quarter mile off Oyster Creek on Great Bay.

The captain and crew had been out early last Thursday morning in the new fast rum chasers, with which the coast guards are now provided, patrolling the nearby waters when about 3:40 they sighted this small fleet of rum runners, composed of one high powered sea skiff, a good sized garvey and a tender in tow of the large boat.

Captain Rogers signaled for the boat to stop but instead of doing so the crew began to hustle around and try and make the boat go faster, after two signals had been given to pull up, Capt. Rogers gave the order to fire across the bow of the boat and try to stop it, this order was carried out but still the boat kept on, the Captain then gave the orders to fire at the boat and about the same time the rum runners opened with a volley of shots at the coast guards and a lively battle then ensued for several minutes with the coat guards using Springfield rifles and the rum runners using automatic revolvers and shot guns, but the coast guards decided the issue when they brought into play the rapid fire machine gun which they carry on these patrolling expeditions. The machine gun raked the smugglers craft fore to aft and after several rounds of ammunition had been emptied at them they were seen to pile over the sides of the boat and swim foe the shore, like a bunch of water rats, deserting their boats and their cargoes to the coast guards and thinking only one thing and that was of getting ashore out of that rain of lead.

After the smugglers deserted the boats the coast guards drew up to the abandoned boats and taking them in tow started homeward. Evidently the rum runners had a party waiting on the shore for as the coast guard boat hooked on to the other boat a crowd of men emerged from the woods in an attempt to frighten the coast guards by their superior numbers into deserting the captured boats. However nothing daunted these men and although they had failed to capture the crews of the boats they had at least taken a load of whiskey and three boats had been confiscated.

The boats and their cargoes were taken to Bonds C.G.S. where the liquor was unloaded and stored in the station house to await its deposition by federal authorities. The federal agents did not remove the whiskey until Monday morning when it was laoded into a large truck and taken to the federal warehouse in Phila., where after it was tested as to its purity it is to be distributed to the hospitals.

The one large boat captured is a thirty foot sea skiff painted a dark gray to make it a harder color to see by the revenue cutters and coast guards. It is equipped with a 300 H.P. Sterking Dolphin Special Motor and is capable of making a speed of thirty five miles an hour. It has evidently been used for the sole purpose of smuggling judging from its equipment. The garvey is a fairly good-sized boat with a Palmer engine. The small tender fastened on to the larger boat contained 3 quart bottles of liquor. The rest of the load was on the other two boats.

The seized liquor which amounted to 170 cases and made up of a number of one time very popular brands: Old Crow, Canadian Club; John Haig; Black and White; Green Stripe; Old Smuggler; William Penn Pure Rye; White Horse; Peter Lawson; White Label; Lawsons' Haig & Haig and one case of champagne was estimated to be worth about $15,000 and the value of the three boats was placed at $9,000 making a total loss to the smugglers of about $24,000. One automatic revolver was also found on the boat when it was captured, evidently the rest of the firearms were cast overboard.

The register numbers of the two larger boats were L7280 and M33, the small tender was not registered.

An interesting sight on the captured rum runner was the marks where the machine gun bullets had riddled it, at one place on the gunwale about two inches was completely cut away where the bullets had cut through. It is miraculous how the crew on the rum runner escaped being killed by the flying lead.

The place where the boat was captured was about opposite Chestnut Neck on the shore road which is considered a noted place for bootleggers to ply their trade.

The escaped crew of the boats is thought to have been from Atlantic City as this was the direction they were seen to go in cars that were following along on the shore road after they had given up hope of recovering their boats.

The coast guards when interviewed by the Times reporter, expressed the experience as a “Hot Time” and admitted that it sure was exciting a few minutes before the smugglers took to the water. Capt. Rogers and his crew are to be commended for the courageous work done in running down this set of smugglers.

Transcription by Pete Stemmer from an Unknown Newspaper

October 9, 1924

While the headline suggests that the incident took place on Great Bay, it actually occurred on the Mullica River which winds past Chestnut Neck and flows into Great Bay. It is the border between Bass River Township and Port Republic and, also, the border between Burlington and Atlantic Counties.

Anyone reading this who has family roots in old New Gretna may have ancestors who were engaged in the rum running trade. It was not uncommon in our area, given that most families had boats and were familiar with the local bays, rivers, and creeks and could always use some extra cash. If you have any New Gretna bootlegging and/or rum running stories, let's hear from you.

Pete S

PS- When we first bought our house on the banks of the Bass River, we had the family over for a backyard picnic. The first thing that my grandfather Stemmer said when he looked out over the beautiful river view was "Looks like a great spot for rum runners." Shortly after that we bought a sailboat which we named the "Rum Runner." Little did I realize how appropriate that name was.

Myself and nephew, David O'Brien, with the "Rum Runner" in my backyard in the early 1980's.

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