Vancouver History Blog

The Forbidden Vancouver Blog

A History of Prohibition in Vancouver

CVA 480-215 - View of liquor stills captured during Prohibition - 1917

CVA 480-215 – View of liquor stills captured during Prohibition – 1917

 

Our Prohibition City tour delves into one of Vancouver’s most fascinating periods of history. The 1910s and 1920s were a time like no other in Vancouver. A huge economic boom fuelled countless construction projects, including the creation of some of Vancouver’ most iconic buildings like the Dominion Building and Sun Tower. The boom was then stopped dead in its tracks by WWI. A war which cost the lives of more British Columbians per capita than any other province. And while the province’s young men were overseas fighting, an incredible social experiment took place at home. The experiment? Prohibition.

Will ponders Vancouver’s past in front of the Dominion and Woodwards buildings. Courtesy Josh Hite.

 

Prohibition – what on earth were people thinking? If that’s what you’re wondering then you are not alone. We look back now and it seems kind of obvious that any attempt to outlaw alcohol would result in a big mess. But back in the early part of the Twentieth Century prohibition was commonly considered a great idea. Alcoholism was causing widespread damage to the Canadian family and most figured that banning liquor would restore the moral fabric of Canadian society. The temperance movement of the time had huge political influence. It was funded by the Church, and was dead set on forcing governments to outlaw the demon drink and close down the saloons.

History hides in the alleyways. Courtesy Kiri Marr.

British Columbia’s period of prohibition from 1917 to 1921 actually preceded prohibition in the US. The Temperance Movement had fought a long battle against liquor and once the First World War started they were finally able to convince the politicians, media and public that prohibition was the tonic the country needed if the allies were to win the war. Like elsewhere in North America, prohibition in BC did not have the expected outcomes. Drinking certainly did not stop! Illegal drinking dens, speakeasies, and bootlegging operations (illegal producers and distributors of liquor) quickly sprang up.

While officially prohibition in BC was short-lived and ended in 1921, the strictness of ‘post-prohibition’ licensing laws in Vancouver meant that bootlegging and speakeasies carried on well into the 1950’s. These illegal drinking venues varied from the sophisticated Commodore Ballroom, to run down ‘sawdust-on-the-floors’ drinking dens in Hogan’s Alley (left), a neighbourhood demolished in the 1960’s to make way for the Georgia Street Viaduct and once renowned for bootleg liquor and illegal drinking.

Prohibition enabled organized crime bosses like Joe Celona and Wally “Blondie” Wallace to exert huge control over the city. The rewards from selling bootleg liquor were just too great; and many officials or police officers ended up turning a blind eye to bootlegging, or profiting from it through bribes or pay-offs. A number of police chiefs lost their jobs over allegations of corruption in the VPD. Things reached a climax in the 50`s during the ‘Mulligan Affair’, when Chief of Police Walter Mulligan fled Vancouver for Los Angeles halfway through an inquiry into corruption in the VPD. On the right is a photo of people lining up to get into the courtroom to see Mulligan on trial.

While the province wrestled with its hyper-strict drinking laws after prohibition was officially repealed, prohibition continued at full steam south of the border. Enterprising Canadian sailors made great fortunes rum-running, smuggling illegal booze into the US. Boats would leave BC waters packed with booze and head for the waters of California in a cat-and-mouse game with the FBI and US Coastguard. The Reifel family ran the operation from their mansions and warehouses in and around Vancouver, becoming one of North America’s wealthiest families in the process.

BC’s greatest rum-running vessel – the Malahat. Courtesy City of Vancouver Archives.

Rum-running came to an end in 1933 when the US government finally repealed prohibition. In the mid-50’s the BC government started to relax the drinking laws; restaurants could serve alcoholic drinks and cocktail bars opened up. The speakeasies and bootleg liquor joints began to close down. Unfortunately within a few years heroin and cocaine were starting to appear on the streets of Vancouver, bringing a whole new set of problems for the city.

1920s Hastings & Carrall. Courtesy City of Vancouver Archives.

On Prohibition City we chart the rise and fall of prohibition in Vancouver. We visit the respectable hotels that were once illegal drinking dens. We walk the alleyways where blind pigs once hid. We hear the story of Vancouver’s notorious prohibition-era mayor, L.D. Taylor, of the city’s most beautiful showgirl and its most successful rum-runner. It was Vancouver’s most interesting time so why not discover it on Vancouver’s most interesting walking tour? Prohibition City.