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Eighty years ago today, the 21st Amendment became law, effectively repealing the nationwide Prohibition.
But Seattle wasn’t exactly dry during the Prohibition Era, thanks, in large part, to the miles of beaches of Puget Sound.
Puget Sound: A godsend for smugglers
Quaffers with a hankering would head north to Canada, pay someone, then return home and wait for a call.
“You’d get a call that said, ‘The goods are at such and such beach.’ Then you’d have to hurry over there and hope that someone else hadn’t gotten to it before you,” said University of Washington history professor William Rorabaugh.
That’s how the amateurs got their fix, says Rorabaugh. Bigger players’ shipments came in at night. But everyone’s supply came from Canada and arrived along the shores of Puget Sound.
“There were very few moonshiners, because they could not compete with the large distilleries that set up in Canada to export,” said Rorabaugh. There was also very little beer, which proved “too bulky and too hard to hide,” he said.
In the smuggling world, a crooked cop reigns supreme
The biggest player in town was a Seattle police lieutenant named Roy Olmstead, who wasted no time seizing the market once the 18th Amendment took effect and outlawed booze. But unlucky for Olmstead, the feds wasted no time, either. Agents seized his fist big shipment of booze—nearly 100 cases of Canadian whiskey, the largest seizure of smuggled booze in Puget Sound since Prohibition began, according to HistoryLink.
Olmstead, 34, was fined $500 and fired from the force. Undeterred, he went on to arrange bigger shipments that yielded larger profit margins that helped line gatekeepers’ pockets. The bootlegger soon became the region’s largest employer, moving hundreds of cases of Canadian booze to Seattle daily and grossing some $200,000 per month.
“The guy really was running the whole show, and actually had the support from government officials who saw the alternative as bringing in organized crime,” said Rorabaugh, adding Olmstead, unlike his counterparts in other big cities, used big cash payouts instead of violence to make his operation run smoothly.
The shipments from Canada were stashed in remote islands in the Haro Strait, then fetched by special-made speedboats that could outrun the Coast Guard cutters. By 1924, Olmstead was so successful that he became a wholesale supplier for the region.
Olmstead played no small part in keeping Seattle supplied during the dry years before a grand jury indicted him in 1925. And the so-called “King of Puget Sound Bootleggers” was hardly alone, says Rorabaugh.
“There were clubs in downtown Seattle that served liquor all through the end of Prohibition and paid off police. They were all private clubs that you had to have a code to get in[to],” he said.
Before the bootlegging days, early push for Prohibition
Despite the rampant smuggling, western Washington didn’t always have such wet tendencies. In fact, the state was pushing for Prohibition years before the federal law took effect.
In 1914, Washington voters approved a first-ever citizen-sponsored initiative prohibiting the manufacturing and the sale of alcohol. Voters in urban areas like Seattle, Tacoma and Spokane rejected the measure; however, Washingtonians in rural areas saw alcohol as a cause of widespread issues including domestic disputes.
“This [the initiative] was one of the progressive reforms,” said Rorabaugh. “Many people believed alcohol was the source of poverty and crime. So it was like the perfect law, because it would stop wife-beating and child abuse.”
Prohibition did curb drinking somewhat, said Rorabaugh, but of course, it didn’t eradicate poverty or crime. Once it became clear the law wasn’t a cure-all for societal ills, it lost popularity. And in November 1932, state voters repealed all anti-alcohol state laws with the exception of the drinking age, which remained at 21.
“This is chaos, because the federal government still had Prohibition in place,” said Rorabaugh. The situation was not unlike today’s discrepancies between state and federal marijuana laws, Rorabaugh said, though there was one key difference. With alcohol, the feds got rid of Prohibition. With marijuana, though Washington has legalized it, it remains illegal under federal law.
State-run liquor stores established
When Prohibition was repealed on Dec. 5, 1933, Washington was caught unprepared.
“Washington state still didn’t have any legislation [for regulating alcohol],” said Rorabaugh. “The governor called a special session and asked that they pass something, because, for one thing, taxes—nobody was getting taxes on any of this stuff.”
Because hard liquor had been so abundant during the Prohibition years, lawmakers adopted a hard stance.
“Taxes on beer were kept low and taxes on hard liquor were driven high, and the bootleggers were driven out,” said Rorabaugh.
In January 1934, Washington adopted the state-store system for hard liquor while allowing for private sales of beer and wine. The system stayed in effect until state voters approved the privatization of liquor in 2011.
Still, alcohol remains the most regulated product in the state, says Rorabaugh.
“It’s the only product where the government closely watches everything that is done,” he said. Everyone who manufactures, sells or handles it must have a license.
Even after the repeal of Prohibition, Washingtonians couldn’t legally buy alcohol by the drink until the 1940s; they had to bring their own bottles to special clubs to consume.
The clubs weren’t supposed to sell alcohol, but the rule wasn’t exactly strictly enforced, according to late Seattle jazz trumpeter Floyd Standifer.
“I’ve been playing there when the cops walked through. In fact, the word came in—yeah, they’d be coming in in about five minutes,” Standifer told KPLU in 1995. “All the bottles would be under the table, and they’d kind of take a look around. And they’d take a sacrificial lamb down to the station.
“And they’d take this nephew or cousin, or whatever down to the station. And he’d sign his name, have a cup of coffee and come on back.”
No drinks for a lone woman
Another lingering law forbade a single woman from bellying up at a bar.
“It was illegal to serve a woman at the bar, a single woman at the bar. You could be at a table, but not at the bar,” late historian Norman Clark told KPLU in 1995. “And if you were at a table, you couldn’t move to another table. So there could be no possibility of solicitation.”
The law, which had stemmed from concerns over prostitution in the 1930s, was not repealed until 1969—the same year we put a man on the moon.
Bonus: Cocktails to celebrate Repeal Day
Leon Baram, a bartender at Seattle’s Tavern Law, shared the recipes of three Prohibition Era-cocktails to celebrate Repeal Day.