It’s a small book, but a lot of work went into the research.
Local waterfront resident Terry Boulton has self-published Smuggling on the Lower Niagara River, 1920 to 1933. He chose the specific area and time frame, he says, because although there has been lots written about prohibition, there is little about the impact of it on this area and local residents during those years.
The focus of his book is “how a small Canadian town became embroiled in American prohibition.”
Boulton says he started his research for another book he was writing about his family history as it relates to the fishing industry, wanting to learn more about the family members he could trace back as far as 1840, who owned waterfront property and were commercial fishermen.
Family history is also why he has lived most of his life on the waterfront, and is so comfortable on the water himself.
When he started his research in 2009, he was spending four to five hours a day, day after day, reading local newspapers on microfiche at the St. Catharines Public Library, “an arduous task, to say the least,” says Boulton.
And while doing that, he was becoming more and more distracted by stories that would pop up between the social columns and other local news regarding smuggling on the Niagara River, beginning in the 1920s, and decided that would be a topic for another book. When he realized how much the research was overlapping, as were the two stories in his head, he decided it was time to put the family history on hold — it is a larger story and a longer book — and concentrate on finishing his work on smuggling.
“For such a small book, I had to do a heck of a lot of research,” he says.
He credits the writings of John Field, the first druggist at The Apothecary on Queen Street, Elizabeth Ascher, who wrote for The Standard in the early 1900s, and Joe Masters, who submitted regular columns to the Niagara Advance, for providing “the backbone of the research,” and says he also had help from many others.
He recently had his first printing of 150 copies sell out, and by the time he picked up the next printing of another 80 copies, 60 were spoken for.
Prohibition in the U.S. at that time was a moral issue, says Boulton, backed by suffragettes, and although many Americans did not agree with it, it impacted every facet of society.
While the upper Niagara was heavily involved in smuggling, particularly with the large outlet for alcohol in Buffalo, the lower Niagara was less active because of the current, and also the proximity of the Coast Guard in Youngstown.
Boulton had to rely on anecdotal accounts from local newspaper articles about “rum-running” episodes, some tragic, some humorous, to paint a picture of a colourful time in Niagara-on-the-Lake history that isn’t well-known.
Although there had been times in our history when governments tried to control alcohol on this side of the border, these efforts were unpopular, so that bootleggers and rum-runners were not typically disparaged — going by the anecdotal evidence he found, locals were pretty tolerant. Smugglers, he says, were usually recruited from the dock area, and commercial fishermen were particularly sought out as participants — they had the necessary skills and knowledge of boats and the river.
He found one newspaper article of the day that said at least 19 local fishing boats were employed in the practice of smuggling part-time, and he came across information that Smuggler’s Cove, now the site of a boat club, a gravel pit near Paradise Grove and even Chautauqua near the rifle range were used as suitable spots for loading boats, while locals either helped out or turned a blind eye. Farmers, Boulton discovered, were agreeable, for a price, to storing alcohol on their premises until it could be picked up for a trip across the river.
Local historian Jim Smith, who provided some photos for the book, told Boulton a story of his father, Lesley Smith, as a young boy, walking along the bank by the NOTL Golf Club, and seeing a boat, owned by someone well-known in the community, running low in the water, covered by a tarp. His father believed booze was
being smuggled, said Smith. “My dad was the last person to see him alive, as he completely disappeared.”
Did locals get rich participating in rum-running? Boulton says at least three businessmen in town were reported to have made their fortune through smuggling, during a time when the risk seemed very little.However, as American vigilance on the river was stepped up, it became more difficult and dangerous.
And finally, when the Canadian government prohibited the export of liquor, under an agreement with the U.S., smuggling activity wound down on the Niagara River.
Boulton retells colourful stories the way they were told originally, every quote written as he came across it in his research, and each one documented. It’s a local story of the people, the waterfront, and a different way to look at the history of fishermen in the area, including some with family names we might recognize — some he had permission to use, and others he didn’t name — until the coast guard began coming down hard on those they caught.
In a town rich with history that has been told and retold, mostly from 1812 on, Boulton’s is not a story that’s been told before.
A couple of copies of his book can be found at the NOTL Public Library — chief librarian Cathy Smith has cataloged them under social science as well as history — at the NOTL Museum, and some other outlets around town, including the Scottish Loft on Queen Street, and the Gretzky and Peller wineries.
Boulton is selling them for $10. If anyone is interested, call him at 905-468-3765, or email him at email@example.com.