[by Lani Russwurm] Alcohol prohibition arrived in BC in 1917 and lasted just four years. Between the bootlegging, the corruption, and the scandals, it’s fair to say prohibition created more problems than it solved. It also created enough juicy history in Vancouver to fuel our daily Prohibition City walking tour!
So let’s take a journey through Vancouver’s history of prohibition – from the Great Fire to shipwrecks, and from blind pigs to beer parlours!
In some ways Vancouver history is the original “Drunk History.” During the Great Fire that levelled the town in 1886 for example, many took advantage of the untended bars to help themselves to free booze. An article on the fire that appeared in the New York Times reported that
during the confusion which prevailed, when rowdies and roughs saw that every one was leaving, they entered the saloons which had been left entirely unprotected and commenced drinking. Many a one was seen staggering along the streets with a keg of beer on his shoulder and as many bottles of liquor as he could appropriate. Men were seen sitting completely hemmed in by the fire and apparently oblivious to their surroundings drinking liquor. They were of course then already partially intoxicated.
The Vancouver Police Department was formed in the aftermath of the fire to rescue barrels of whiskey from the harbor. (Policing duties were previously handled by a lone constable).
In 1889, the inebriated crew of the famous SS Beaver, the first steamship on the Pacific, realized they were out of liquor. They tried turning around but crashed at Prospect Point. Undeterred, they abandoned the wreck and headed to the Sunny Side Hotel on foot.
The first alcohol ban in British Columbia was the prohibition of alcohol for Indigenous people and included the crime of “selling liquor to Indians.”
Alcohol was introduced to this area by the fur trade. Consumption by the Indigenous population was outlawed by Governor James Douglas in 1854. Although that prohibition failed to curb drunkenness, it lasted for over a century. According to historian Douglas L Hamilton, the ban on Indigenous drinking “proved very useful as a tool of intimidation to facilitate the expansion of white settlement and later, for social control.”
The ban was partially lifted in 1951 following a revision of the Indian Act. In BC this meant Indigenous people were only allowed to consume alcohol in beer parlours, mainly because of the “firewater” myth (since thoroughly debunked) that claimed natives somehow couldn’t metabolize alcohol as well as their white counterparts, so they were better off drinking beer rather than stronger spirits. Full legal equality on the liquor front didn’t come to BC until 1962.
The next attempt to ban alcohol in the area was at Hastings Mill. The original settlement of workers around the mill, the nucleus of Vancouver, was a company town, and company policy was to keep it dry.
A barkeep in New Westminster named Gassy Jack noticed all the poor sods having to walk all the way from Burrard Inlet to New Westminster for a drink. Jack opened his famous saloon a short walk from Hastings Mill property, in what’s now Maple Tree Square, in 1867.
A complete prohibition of alcohol wasn’t the government’s first attempt to curb Vancouver’s drinking problem. In 1905 City Council voted to abolish saloons, that is, stand-alone bars not part of a hotel. As of 1 July 1906, all bars in the city had to “conform in every respect to the requirement of the hotels, having 25 bedrooms for guests, a dining-room capable of accommodating 25, and all other requisites.” The drinking age was also raised from 16 to 18 years old.
Calls for a full ban of alcohol had been building in Vancouver and elsewhere since the 19th century, with groups such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) sprouting chapters throughout North America. They were part of the larger Social Gospel Movement, in which Christians became politically active to push for moral reforms.
The temperance movement was weaker in BC than in other parts of the country. The majority of residents in the early 20th century hailed from England and Scotland, where alcohol was a well-established part of “civilized” culture. And even though Vancouver’s population was ballooning in this period, it was still culturally a frontier town that tolerated things like drunkenness and prostitution more than cities east of the Rockies, largely because of the disproportionate number of young male workers. Not surprisingly, the loud demands of the prohibitionists did not translate into political will in a provincial government making a killing on liquor taxes.
The turning point came during the First World War. Wartime food rationing limited alcohol production and prohibitionists seized the moment to argue abstinence was vital to the war effort. Finally they had a case that resonated with British Columbians.
A major temperance conference was held in 1915. Its highlight was a speech by the legendary suffragist and temperance advocate Nellie McClung to a crowd of four thousand at the Denman Arena. “It is the women who pay the price,” McClung told the audience. “They get none of the pleasure of drinking … but the long price, the price in sorrow and suffering, that is paid by the women at home.”
A group called the People’s Prohibition Association (PPA) formed to carry on the momentum generated by the conference. Influential businessmen joined the group and it became the voice of the “Drys” in BC. Eventually they were able to persuade Premier McBride to agree to a vote on prohibition in the 1916 election. McBride stepped down, but the referendum went ahead under his successor, William J Bowser. Suffrage for women was also on the ballot.
The “Drys” and “Wets” led vigorous campaigns leading up to the election, but in the end prohibition won the day, and the province officially became dry on 1 October 1917.
So what happened to all the bars in Vancouver? Only nine of the city’s 69 hotel bars closed. Others converted to cafés, selling soft drinks and “near beer” with only 1% alcohol content. Some became private clubs, requiring a membership. Many hotels jacked up their room rates to make up for the lost revenue. Some bars were rented out as retail space, and a handful became cabarets in the hopes of making money by offering live music and dancing. The latter option was a little risky; cabarets a century ago had a reputation as hothouses of vice, so could expect extra scrutiny.
Vancouver’s most significant prohibition-era cabaret was at the Patricia Hotel. To assuage potential critics, they stressed that it was to be a wholesome enterprise, catering “especially to a family trade,” according to one advertisement. The city inspector concurred that the Patricia Cabaret was a legally and morally sound operation.
The Patricia may well have been wholesome in the earliest days of prohibition, but, possibly to make it profitable, they recruited a house orchestra of hot jazz pioneers from the States, including Jelly Roll Morton, Oscar Holden, and Ada “Bricktop” Smith to liven the place up with the strange new music that had been brewing south of the border.
Bricktop went on to become an icon of the jazz age in Europe. The Patricia Cabaret that she describes in her memoir doesn’t sound all that wholesome. She describes a brawl that broke out on New Years Eve, 1920. The Patricia was filled with about 300 large Swedish loggers, “tall strapping fellows who could make a bottle of whiskey disappear in no time,” she recalled.
No one knows what that fight was all about. Everybody was beating up on everybody else … I remember all the fists flying and glass breaking, but that’s all I remember. It was one of those “special occasions” when I lost count of how many drinks I’d had … The next thing I knew, I was in a bed in a white room. My right leg was in a splint, and my head felt as if it were about to come off. I was in a hospital, and my leg was broken.
Bricktop’s recollection of prohibition in Vancouver was that it wasn’t difficult to find a drink with all the blind pigs that popped up.
Outside of the private clubs and speakeasies, the only place you could buy a drink was at someone’s house. It was like those after-hours places in Chicago, only in Vancouver you could buy a drink night or day at someone’s “open house.”
When friends started coming over to our apartment to see us, they’d say they wanted a drink and we’d give them one. They said we were crazy fools to give liquor away, so Lily and I started selling a shot of whiskey for fifteen cents, or two for a quarter.
Another American, a vaudevillian named Joe Sheftell, told a Chicago newspaper that “all you have to do up here is pay fifty cents for a prescription and [you] get all the liquor you want.” (Prescriptions were actually $2-$4, but less if more than one chipped in).
As these recollections suggest, BC’s alcohol prohibition had huge loopholes that ensured liquor kept flowing. Only buying or selling alcohol was outlawed. Producing it for export or consuming it in a private dwelling was still legal, provided you stocked up before the law came into effect or had the financial means to import it from outside the province.
Doctors still used alcohol as medicine in those days, and more so during prohibition when they could charge for a prescription. Some physicians were selling as many as 4000 prescriptions each month. In 1919 alone, 315,000 alcohol prescriptions were sold. Needless to say, when numbers like this were publicized it was quite the scandal. The Prohibition Act was tweaked to limit doctor prescriptions and make them more accountable.
In the meantime, the federal government under Prime Minister Borden instituted a national alcohol prohibition with an order-in-council that came into force on April Fool’s Day, 1918 under the War Measures Act. The war was nearing its conclusion, but the order-in-council didn’t expire until a year after the armistice.
Inter-provincial traffic of booze was now illegal and production was further restricted, limited to supplying the legal market for pharmacies, churches, industry, and rum rations for soldiers on the front lines. Even Vancouver’s wealthy could no longer legally import booze, leaving medical prescriptions or going to church as the only legal ways to get a drink for those who hadn’t managed to stockpile enough booze in their homes.
The prescription racket wasn’t the biggest scandal of the prohibition experiment. The PPA, the group that successfully campaigned for prohibition, was given the task of appointing a Prohibition Commissioner to oversee the importation, storage, and distribution of the legal liquor. They picked one of their own for the job, a PPA activist who helped make the prohibition campaign a success, Walter C Findlay.
Findlay seemed to be doing a fine job in his first year as Prohibition Commissioner. Despite his lofty sounding job title, he had no enforcement powers and was merely charged with coordinating the legal booze networks on behalf of the government. He also made noise in the press about the police not doing enough to enforce prohibition and for doctors violating the spirit of the law in writing so many prescriptions. It was Findlay who recommended tweaking the law to limit how much and how often doctors could prescribe liquor. He also (unsuccessfully) tried to extend his authority to ban over-the-counter “medicinal” concoctions containing alcohol.
Then in December 1918, a bomb dropped. The Attorney General issued an arrest warrant for Commissioner Findlay on a charge of illegally importing 700 cases of rye whiskey into BC. He was arrested trying to cross into the US. Findlay pleaded guilty, paid a $1000 fine, and b-lined to Seattle.
Findlay was tight lipped, refusing to talk beyond admitting his guilt. Finally, his lawyer made a deal with the crown that he would return to Victoria and testify at an inquiry. He wasn’t as open as he had agreed to be, but witness testimonies and other evidence revealed the extent of his smuggling network that included trainloads of whiskey delivered to his Vancouver warehouse, and large quantities of missing stock from government warehouses.
WC Findlay did end up serving two years in prison, but the soft treatment he received in the criminal justice system suggests there were other powerful folks involved in his illicit liquor operation.
With the prohibition regime thoroughly discredited and the end of the war that had made the experiment palpable in BC, another vote was put to the public on the liquor question. Prohibition was rejected, and the law was repealed in 1921. This was the beginning of the government control system that’s still in place today.
The end of legal prohibition wasn’t a return to normal. Beer parlours weren’t legalized until 1925, and there were so many restrictions on them that drinking beer was almost the only activity permitted to take place there.
Combining entertainment and alcohol in a public venue wasn’t legalized until the 1950s. Before then, most dinner clubs and cabarets were “bottle clubs,” meaning patrons had to sneak in their own liquor to mix with the high-priced non-alcoholic beverages sold at the bar.
Police periodically raided such places in what became a routine cat-and-mouse game. Dal Richards, the bandleader at the Hotel Vancouver, recalled that when he got the signal police were on their way, the band played “Roll out the Barrels” to alert patrons to place their liquor bottles on the floor so police couldn’t tell who had liquor and who didn’t.
Strict liquor regulations ensured that bootleggers and blind pigs continued to operate. Hardship during the Great Depression led many people to get into making and selling illicit booze to make ends meet. By some accounts, more family homes than not along Union Street in the East End and around Hogan’s Alley housed some kind of liquor operation.
The underground networks and infrastructure that developed during prohibition became even more sophisticated to take advantage of American prohibition that began in 1920 and lasted until 1933. “Rum running” became an extremely lucrative enterprise for entrepreneurs unafraid to skirt US law. The best known of these locally was the Reifel family, who supplied much of the American west during prohibition.
The Reifels had a fleet of ships that took legally produced cases of booze south, being sure to stay just outside US territorial waters. Smugglers in small boats would meet them and buy booze to bring ashore. The Reifels’ mothership, the Malahat, was a WWI vessel large enough to carry 60,000 cases of liquor.
The Reifels’ rum running legacy in Vancouver includes the Commodore Ballroom, the Vogue Theatre, Casa Mia and Rio Vista mansions in Shaughnessy, and the George C Reifel Bird Sanctuary in Delta. They also donated the land for the first Vancouver Art Gallery at 1145 West Georgia that lasted until 1983.
By the end of the 1950s, one of Vancouver’s most notorious criminals, Joe Celona, retired from his life of crime, telling the press that “there’s no dough left in bootlegging; all the bawdy houses are closed down and now they stop a man from taking a few honest bets.”
Our Prohibition City walking tours go every night at 7:00pm.
Title image: The interior of Urquart’s liquor store between 1903 and 1907. City of Vancouver Archives #46-7.