Fishermen By Day - Bootleggers By Night

by Dana Kester-McCabe

A documentary short film on Prohibition in Ocean City, Maryland.
Brought back from our archives in honor of the late George Hurley and his wife Suzanne - historians and founders of the Ocean City Lifesaving Station Museum.

George Hurley grew up hearing a lot about Prohibition. Through his research he has come across a few interesting stories about Ocean City, Maryland during that era. During Prohibition not everyone wanted to go on the wagon and give up their liquor. But the three Delmarva state legislatures were early adopters. Virginia was the second state to ratify the Eighteenth Amendment, followed by Maryland coming in sixth, and Delaware being the ninth. The 18th Amendment (Prohibition) was enacted in 1920. Displaying typical Eastern Shore stubborn independence, coastal residents more or less ignored the new law.

George Hurley and his wife Suzanne have written a number of books about Ocean City's storied past. But prohibition is one topic which has not yet made it into any of their publications. George is too young to have experienced it first hand, and not many of those who lived through it are still around to tell the tales.

Charles Elliot, who eventually became a bank president, told George that he, along with father and brother, were once forced to dump a load of whiskey from their boat when they spotted Coast Guard vessels approaching. They were coming up the Bay from South Point. Attempts to retrieve the bags of bottles with grappling hooks later that night were fruitless. They always suspected that someone else had seen them and stolen the whiskey because at that time the currents were very light in that area of the bay.

The late Alan Quillin, a lifelong electrician and member of the fire department, told a story of youthful entrepreneurship. Alan and some of his friends hid under the board walk and used fish hooks and lines to snag and steal burlap bags of confiscated alcohol, right out from under the Coast Guard Station which was then located at Caroline Street. The whiskey was sold for a clear profit.

George's grandmother Elizabeth Murray worked for a wealthy local attorney. She often talked about seeing the signal lights across the bay from her employer's residence at 37th street. Nearby was the Lucky Lindy Roadhouse. This was well beyond the north end of town where there mostly sand dunes. The signals from Isle of Wight let bootleggers know it was safe to bring liquor across the inland bay to carts waiting to transport it north to Baltimore and Philadelphia.

The Lucky Lindy was a notorious tavern that was painted pink and run by equally colorful characters. George's grandmother said there were rumors of men disappearing from and never being of again after going there. The grandson of the man who built described the business to George as being "certainly nothing that was legal."

Ellen Weaver told George that she remembers men who had been caught bring booze ashore being paraded through town. They had been sentenced to thirty days in jail but they were conducted from the jail on Division Street to the eat lunch and breakfast at the Del Mar Hotel. They seemed to be having a good time laughing and joking. Many were fishermen or owners of local businesses by day and bootleggers by night. Records show one local Sheriff Lynch conducting regular raids on suspected bootleggers all who were back in business by the next day. This indicates that there was probably a payoff system in place. A number of well known families in the resort are thought to have profited greatly from alcohol trafficking during this period.

During Prohibition, whiskey was shipped from Canada to points up and down the east coast and rum came from the opposite direction in the Caribbean. The government outfitted retired World War I naval vessels to serve as the Rum Runners patrol looking for contraband and bootleggers.

George says the bootlegging game was difficult work done mostly by experienced boatmen. After pound fishing all day they would paddle out through the surf at night in their double bowed boats to meet the transport ships and bring cargo ashore near what is now 36th Street. They generally knew the Coast Guard schedule but Guardsman were known to say of the fishermen: "When we weren't recuing them we were arresting them."

George also has heard legends of some Lifesaving Station keepers further south on the peninsula who were very active in bootlegging. Many of the hotels in town were known to sell whiskey in tea cups to the customer who knew to request it. Al Capone is said to have provided the money to construct the George Washington Hotel that used to stand at 10th Street where the Americana is now though that has never been proved.

Mostly the black market in alcohol went unchecked. Even when the Ocean City police went to raid the roadhouses and casinos, their prey had been warned as soon as the cops got in their cars. Many of the names dropped by George's sources are from some of the wealthiest families in the resort. There is no way to know how much bootlegging contributed to their good fortune. But, according to George these outlaws were considered heroes by most. "You have to remember there was a Depression goin' on too. And they were providers. And, some of them were good providers."

The 21st Amendment to the Constitution repealing Prohibition went into effect in December of 1933. With Prohibition's repeal, Change and a new prosperity swept over the town like the waves of that storm. The commercial fishing industry blossomed. And with the return of alcohol sales so did the hospitality and tourism businesses.

Prohibition only lasted from 1920 until 1933. In the opposite order that the Delmarva states ratified the 18th amendment Delaware was the first to vote for repeal with Maryland and Virginia following. It is interesting to note the last two did so only after the great Atlantic hurricane of August 1933. The storm is famous for creating a new inlet while destroying train access to the barrier island and the infrastructure that supported the fishing village at the south end of town.

Today in Worcester County alone there are over 250 stores, restaurants, and bars that sell alcohol. Most of these are on that thin ten mile strip of land called Ocean City. Even though the town is known as a family resort, drinking is a big part of the beach town's lifestyle. And there is still a black market in marijuana and other illegal activities, though drug dealers are perhaps not held in the same regard as the bootleggers.

George says the area has long attracted big talkers and wheeler dealers. It has also attracted tough survivors who are not afraid to work hard in a challenging place. It is no wonder we tend to admire those long ago rascal pirate bootleggers. After all the law is no match for those who dare to make their living at the mercy of the wind and the mighty surf.