If someone tells a model railroader that you can’t model “the liquor traffic” for the period of American Prohibition, don’t listen.

Railroads had a major role in delivering booze from Canada to a thirsty United States from 1920 to1933 and so anyone modeling that period can have a lot of fun adding boxcars full of beer and liquor to their roster of rolling stock and delivering the booze as a part of their operational plans.

How it all worked was outlined in my 1987 book King of the Mob, the story of Rocco Perri, sometimes called the “Al Capone of Canada.”Perri might also be called a railroad operations magnate– he created a system of “laundering” beer and liquor as he shipped it to the US by rail.

It’s well known that Canada supplied alcohol to the United States throughout Prohibition, The picture most people have is that booze came by ship or boat. There were fleets that headed south from the Canadian Maritimes, Newfoundland (then a British colony not part of Canada) and the French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon. Small boats made regular trips across the Great Lakes.

Quirks in the Canadian constitution, the division of powers between provinces and the federal government created a giant loophole. Consumption of liquor was a provincial responsibility and most provinces had some form of prohibition.

Manufacture of alcohol was under federal jurisdiction. There was no federal law prohibiting making the stuff. The federal government didn’t care where the booze went as long as the purchaser paid the
excise tax. So on paper, all the beer and alcohol was manufactured for export. (Some of it was smuggled back into those provinces that had their own form of Prohibition.). It is said by some economists that in the period after the great crash of 1929 and the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the Canadian economy was dependent on sending alcohol to the United States, a major reason the feds looked the other way.

So how did the railroads come into the picture?

Rocco Perri, the leader of a small Calabrian mob in the city of Hamilton was the right man, in the right place at the right time. While Perri didn’t control the
region, he wasn’t a boss of bosses, but Perri was certainly the most important force in a region known as the “bootleg triangle” which reached from Detroit in the west (the Hiram Walker distillery and British American brewery) through Toronto (the Gooderham and Worts distillery, now a trendy neighborhood called The Distillery District) and east to Corby’s Distillery at
Corbyville (outside Belleville, Ont.). The apex of the bootleg triangle was in Kitchener, Ont with the giant Kuntz Brewery and the Seagram’s distillery.

Perri and his competitors organized a huge and profitable operation buying beer and alcohol from these companies and creating paperwork that showed the product was being exported “to Cuba” since it was illegal to export alcohol to a country where there was Prohibition, that is the United States. As far as the Canadian customs was concerned, if the booze had to cross the United States to reach Cuba, that was okay with them.

On early indication of how things work was a court case where alcohol was “reimported”
to Ontario. The booze was loaded on Grand Trunk boxcars (one of the predecessors of CN) for Havana Cuba but in this case never reached the American border, much less Cuba.

As you can imagine it was a profitable business. You could buy a case of Seagram’s in Waterloo for $35 (including $14 Canadian excise) sell it for $50 in Buffalo or wait until got to New York where the wholesale price for that case $140.

While the US Coast Guard was busy intercepting fishing boats off Long Island and small boats crossing Lake Ontario, the authorities, it seemed, ignored the railroads.

That is until the Canadian government held an inquiry into the  “liquor traffic.”
One of the men watching the proceedings was Richard Boyce the young American consul in Hamilton, Ontario.

(Before the era of efficient communications, the United States had consulates in many more places than the country does now.)

Boyce wondered how the beer and booze was going south, so he and a US special agent watched as barrels of beer were loaded into a boxcar at the Kuntz Brewery. No way bill was issued until the train reached nearby London, Ontario where suddenly a way bill said the load of  “scrap leather” from the Kitchener Rag & Metal Company was bound for American Tanners in Pittsburgh.

There was no American Tanners in Pittsburgh and when Prohibition agents raided the Pittsburgh siding where the boxcar was waiting, they found 278 barrels each with 30 bottles of beer.

On his own initiative Boyce went through the filing cabinets full of invoices filed with consulate and usually ignored.

Boyce’s investigation showed that between 1924 and 1927 hundreds of boxcars had gone from Canada to the United States loaded with beer or liquor but with way bills describing the the cargo as hay, scrap leather, rags, paper and rubber.

The same name that had appeared on the invoice for the “scrap leather” bound for Pittsburgh also appeared on shipments of turnips to the United States. The only problem was that there were also a large number of legitimate shipments of turnips from the farms of the southwestern Ontario to the Campbell Soup Co. To Boyce, it quickly became apparent that the gangsters were “laundering”
the alcohol shipments amongst legitimate cargo.

Boyce’s investigation showed that between April 1 and June 23, 1927, six shipments of hay weresent from Hagersville, Ontario to a company called Dwyer Reed in New Jersey. Only one box car went to the real Dwyer Reed in Newark, the other eleven box cars when to non-existent Dwyer locations inMontclair, Englewood, Garfield, Manuet and Raritan. (So modelers can think of the switching possibilities in this sort of business)

Boyce found that in those 12 weeks in 1927, 60 boxcars of beer left Hamilton, Kitchener, or St. Catharines for the United States via Niagara Falls. The Canadian government inquiry showed that the price of a dozen pints of Canadian beer at the border in 1927 was $3.25. If each boxcar had 278 barrels with 30 bottles, a single load would have been worth $2,258,75 at Buffalo. Sixty boxcars would have been worth $135,525 at the border, much more in New York and New Jersey.

Boyce got no support from the State Department for his investigation, which told him it was considered “inadvisable”to pass the information to the Justice Department. As for more paperwork, that might help detect alcohol shipments, the State Department said “the system would cause irritation among innocent shippers out of all proportion to its probable value in preventing the shipment of liquor.”

So for those who model the period 1920 to 1933, there all kinds of possibilities for both modeling
operations. Model men unloading beer at a tanning plant. Barrels of beer among a load of hay. Switching the legitimate boxcars to one location, the smuggled beer or alcohol to another. Raids by
Prohibition agents or, of course, gang wars.

You could also have variety of rolling stock, since the Grand Trunk finally went bankrupt in 1923 and was then absorbed by Canadian National. So it is likely alcohol could be found in Grand Trunk, Toronto Hamilton and Buffalo, Canadian National and Canadian Pacific boxcars plus those from affiliated American railroads or railroads that shipped into Canada.

Rewritten from King of the Mob Rocco Perri and the Women Who
Ran His Rackets
. Copyright 1987 by James Dubro and Robin Rowland.
All rights reserved.