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January 19, 2024

Rum-Runners Drive Alcohol Exported From Canada Over the Frozen Detroit River, ca. 1920s

During the USA’s Prohibition era between 1920 and 1933, Detroit became the centre of “rum-running” operations, as criminal organizations such as the notorious Purple Gang smuggled large quantities of alcohol across the border. The river, Lake St Clair and the St Clair River are thought to have accounted for 75% of all the bootleg liquor that found its way into the USA.

Large amounts of smuggled alcohol were distilled at the plant near where the Model T was found – its owner Hiram Walker, a friend of Henry Ford, was from Detroit but had set up on the Canadian side of the river, where land was less expensive.

There were no bridges over, or tunnels under, the Detroit River at that time, so bootleggers would carry the contraband in boats in summer, and in winter used cars to cross the thick ice that a century ago would form over the river.

When the rivers and lakes froze in the winter, smugglers simply drove across them or skated across the ice, dragging sleds full of whiskey behind. Anyone from a single skater towing a sled to a loaded caravan of 75 cars would risk the perilous journey.

Overloaded vehicles were known to have fallen through the ice. The cars are driven with one door open, so if the car goes through the ice the driver can scramble free.


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