The Rum Running War Heats Up
The war between the Coast Guard and the rum runners was reaching new levels as 1925 began. The government had moved U.S. territorial waters outward from 3 to 12 miles, making it harder to operate outside of U.S. law. It had expanded the Coast Guard, providing it with new, faster patrol boats that were equipped with deck guns and wireless radio communication. The rum runners for their part also invested in bigger, faster boats and improved methods of hiding their contraband. They also had one other trick up their sleeve: access to unlimited amounts of money. For the local Coasties, the Asbury Park Press announced their first victory on Feb. 19, 1925.
“BEACH HAVEN – Four hundred and fifty cases of liquor one of the largest seizures by coast guardsmen in recent months, was made by Capt. Frank Falkinburg and a crew from the Beach Haven station this morning when the pursued rum craft, Marion Inn, ran ashore here. The crew escaped. Capt. Falkinburg notified Sheriff Grant, of Ocean County, who will take charge of the liquor today.”
The Tuckerton Beacon the same day reported, “The first cargo of smuggled bootleg liquor ever landed in Tuckerton was brought here this morning by Keeper J. Edward Falkinburg and his crew of the Little Egg Harbor Coast Guard Station.
“The cargo consisted of fine quality champagne and Scotch whiskey. There were 235 cases, most of which was of the higher priced liquors and the lot was valued at $50,000.”
The local paper provided more of the details.
“Keeper Falkinburg seized the liquor in the bay Tuesday. It was loaded in the rum runner ‘Marian N.’ The boat had run ashore and was abandoned by her crew shortly before the Coast Guards arrived. The craft with her load was met here this morning by several armed revenue officers, loaded on two trucks and taken to Philadelphia.
“The arrival of the liquor caused quite a little excitement and attracted a crowd at Willow Landing dock.
“The ‘Marian N.’ is one of the specially built rum runners, is of strong sea-going construction and equipped with a 200 horse-power engine. The craft will be sold Government officials (said).”
In an age before radar, detection of rum runners was the biggest problem. On April 23, the Pittsburgh Post carried a story announcing the U.S. Navy, and its Lakehurst airship base, were now involved.
“Pity the bootlegger whose misfortunes are multiplying alongshore. Somewhere between Barnegat and Nantucket the fluctuating denizens of Rum Row, while engaged in making the Atlantic Ocean wetter still, suffered a rude and sudden jolt as the Los Angeles hovered above them and took abundant pictorial evidence of their banned profession. Things have come to a pretty pass, indeed, if even beyond the three-mile limit gentlemen who have every reason to avoid public notice must be exposed to the full glare of the limelight of undesired publicity. If there is to be an aerial survey undertaken at the expense of those who are funning the gauntlet of prohibition on the face of the waters, the liquor importers will evidently be put to the great inconvenience of resorting to wartime expedients and operating submarines with conjectural ports of entry and a greatly increased risk of capture. And to add insult to injury, even among their clients there will be some to declare, ‘It served them right’!”
Just two days later the same paper reported, “Surf City, N.J., Two 35 foot rum runners and 65 cases of liquor were seized and one man was arrested when coast guards men from the Surf City and Barnegat Inlet stations surprised 14 men who were attempting to land the cargo here.
“Leroy Stanley, of Atlantic City, is held. The other 13 men escaped.”
On the 30th the Beacon was able to provide more details.
“Surf City presented a scene Friday evening that rivalled some of those of the days of the ocean pirates and the activities of Captain Kidd, when Coast Guards engaged in a gun battle with a crew of rum runners.”
Just what had taken place?
“The rum smugglers were discovered shortly after nine o’clock Friday evening, when Leon Corliss, of the Harvey Cedars Coast Guard Station, sighted a red and white blinker light about a half mile off shore. He notified the officer in charge, Captain Calvin Hickman, who went out with his crew. On arriving Captain Hickman found 12 men trying to land their cargo on the beach. Seeing the Coast Guards, the smugglers started to run. When a halt was ordered and not heeded Captain Hickman gave an order to fire and the battle started that lasted several minutes. Two of the men started back, one of which got away shortly after.”
The aftermath of the battle was left behind.
“In their flight the rum crew left their boots and other heavy clothing along the beach and in the hills.
“Four autos parked at the ocean end of Ninth street, Surf City, were waiting to receive the cargo.
“Captain Raymond Palmer, officer in charge at the Barnegat City Station, took charge of the liquor, moving it in a Government truck.
“The rum boat is ashore at Surf City and has attracted many visitors.”
The abandoned boats showed how sophisticated the rum runners had become and also pointed at the possibility of corruption.
“A large boat equipped with a 450 horse power V Type Liberty, a small tender, the latter one of the fleet of the Atlantic City life guards and fifty-five cases of liquor were captured.”
After this victory, the beaches and bays of Ocean County became strangely quiet. Had the rum runners given up and found other places to land? The July 22, 1926, Philadelphia Inquirer broke an alarming story.
“TOMS RIVER, N. J., July 21. – About twenty members of the Coast Guard, including two captains, were suspended today on charges of rum-running, selling liquor and taking bribes from rum-runners, according to Under Sheriff Walter Brower, of Ocean County. …
“It is expected that more than forty Coast Guardsmen will be implicated before the investigation is over.
“Officials refused to give the exact number of men suspended or to tell from which stations they came, except that the stations were between Barnegat Inlet and Beach Haven Inlet.”
The next day the Asbury Park Press discovered the event that had triggered the investigation.
“Another instance that came to Sheriff Grant’s attention to lead him to think that the rum runners were in collusion with the coast guard followed the beaching of a power boat in April last year. Two men arrested at the time said there were 250 cases on board the boat at the time she struck but only 55 cases reached the coast guard station.”
What had appeared to be a victory for the Coast Guard at Ninth Street in Surf City was about to become a scandal that would shake the faith of many in an institution that over the years had been respected by many as heroic and honest.
Next Week: Say it ain’t so!