Prohibition went into effect on January 17, 1920, creating a golden but dangerous opportunity for Montauk residents who wanted to earn extra money.
Fishermen and others often moonlighted as bootleggers, taking small powerboats out to meet large international ships where U.S. territorial waters ended at “Rum Row.” They would pick up liquor and run it back to shore in Montauk, where it was either stored until the coast was clear or loaded into vehicles to be transported to New York City.
Often, liquor was stashed in the cellars or even bedrooms of houses in the old fishing village. According to an oral history interview with Bob Byrnes, whose father and uncle were “in the liquor business,” the shore at the west side of Fort Pond Bay, near Rocky Point and what was called Rod’s Valley, was a particularly favored hiding spot because it was so remote.
Living on Fort Pond Bay at the time was Gus Pitts. He was only 15, and assisted by an 11-year-old “helper,” when he started to make bootlegging runs to Rum Row. In an oral history interview he recounted pulling up to a large English yacht 60 miles offshore to pick up Benedictine, among other spirits, and an English mate telling the two of them to go home and to bed.
“They used to give you a half of a Canadian $2 bill,” Gus Pitts said. “You had half and the other boat had the other half. You had to correspond your half with his. That’s how they knew that you had paid for your own liquor and what you wanted.”
By land and by sea, the level of ingenuity involved in rumrunning on the East End was remarkable. Liquor would be concealed beneath or within hauls of codfish, loaves of bread, truckloads of potatoes, and in oil tankers and passenger cars. Booze would be moved around out east precisely when Prohibition agents were busy testifying in court in Brooklyn. Rumrunners devised a secret code to communicate; it was recorded in a notebook, tossed from a speedboat fleeing the Coast Guard, that a North Fork fisherman pulled up in a net.
“A river of alcohol was being shipped from Montauk Point up to New York City by way of an assortment of vehicles traveling over the local roads,” according to a new book, Rumrunning in Suffolk County. Phone tips so infrequently paid off that agents believed operators were on the smugglers’ payroll.
“’Fish dealers in Montauk are complaining of the shortage of fish and lobsters and it is believed that the rumrunning is one of the main causes,’” the book quotes the East Hampton Star as reporting.
The gig was up when the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed on December 5, 1933. Rumor has it that took any number of years to discover and then drain all the hooch that had been hidden around Montauk.
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