Was bootleg Canadian whisky once smuggled from a secluded beach in l’Anse-au-Griffon to Al Capone’s crime empire in the U.S.?
My wife heard a very interesting local legend from a neighbour. He told her that during the United State’s Prohibition period from 1919 to 1933, Canadian whisky was picked up from the beach which runs below what is now our house and Camping Griffon, her family’s campground. The campground is located on the shores of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, and back in the 1920s and 30s the contraband would have been picked up by fishing boats from Saint Pierre and Miquelon, which are French-owned islands located elsewhere in the Gulf.
On the map below is a possible smuggling route: (1) starting from what is now our beach (below modern-day Camping Griffon), (2) to the islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon, and then (3) to the New England ports in the United States.
The French Connection
Saint Pierre and Miquelon became major smuggling ports after the Volstead Act introduced prohibition in the United States in 1919. The islands are rife with rumours of frequent visits from Al Capone and other crime lords. They turned the islands into an important smuggling den because of their strategic location, on French territory near Canada and the United States.
During Prohibition, Canada could no longer directly export alcohol to the U.S., but it could legally ship alcohol to France. The French-owned islands were perfect legal staging grounds for alcohol including Canadian whisky, Caribbean rum, and European wines and spirits. These were all stored in warehouses on the island. Then they would be loaded aboard smuggling ships bound for U.S. ports and flood into the New England cities and towns, where they would fuel crime and violence.
When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, there was no more demand for black market booze and this smuggling economy collapsed.
Some of the booze (allegedly) smuggled from our beach would have been distilled locally. We often hear stories about enterprising families in nearby Douglastown (near the town of Gaspé) who distilled and sold liquour to American bootleggers. Rumours say these families even sold liquour in bulk to the Kennedy clan – purchased by President John F. Kennedy’s father, Joe Kennedy!
In order to get their supplies to the U.S. markets, the local distillers would have found it safer and easier to ship by sea from the nearby coves and beaches, than to drive it overland or ship by train and risk interception.
Why would smugglers pick this beach to anchor at?
Actually, it would have made an ideal smuggling spot.
First, on the land above the beach there is a creek which cascades over the cliff in a large waterfall. This is an excellent landmark – visible far out to sea during the day and during nights when there is any moonlight. Even on a pitch-dark or foggy night the falling water could possibly be heard by a boat carefully navigating close to shore. The bootleggers arriving from land could follow the creek to the waterfall and not miss their rendezvous in the dark.
As well, the beach would have been a safe landing spot day or night. There is no risk of dangerous reefs, rocks, or currents. Offshore, there is a shelf and the depth drops off quickly, allowing a boat to come in and anchor close to shore.
Finally (and most importantly for smugglers), in the 1920s and 30s our waterfall and pebble beach would have been remote from prying eyes or coast guard vessels (these days a coast guard vessel is berthed in the next village and sails by regularly).
Fact or Fiction?
It’s a local legend, and we’ll never know for sure. But the historical details seem to check out.
If you ever visit us or stay at Camping Griffon, we encourage you to take some time during your stay and walk to the waterfall. Stand on the stairs leading from the creek down to the beach and look down at the waterfall which runs beside them, and then at the beach below.
Now imagine it’s 1929 or 1930 – do you think whisky smugglers could have used this route? Would they have driven trucks or used carts to bring the liquour to the cliff-side? Would they have used ropes and tackles to lower the carefully-packed whisky crates or barrels down the cliff, to the beach below? Where would their lookouts have been posted?
What do YOU think – is the local legend true?