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Bayou St. John: Can't keep It dry

 

5_Prohibition_Disposal(9)

from Wikimedia Commons

As we gear up for an evening of champagne and revelry to celebrate the arrival of 2016, I thought I'd share a story from Prohibition-era New Orleans as a fun sort of contrast. You can't keep New Orleans dry, and you certainly can't keep the bayou dry—as the following Times-Picayune news story, from June 4, 1922, reports:

"BULLETS FLY WHEN DRY FORCES HUNT FAST BOAT”

Officers Capture Liquor and One Craft but Other Escapes

Prohibition enforcement officers exchanged shots with 'rum runners' at dawn Saturday on Bayou St. John near Spanish Fort. The Wayfarer, an 80-foot launch, its skipper, Charles Peterson, 822 St. Charles street, and forty-five sacks said to contain 240 quarts of whiskey and champagne were captured. No one was hit by bullets.

Officers of the prohibition department yesterday were endeavoring to trace the ownership and whereabouts of the Welcome - said to be the mother ship of two launches believed to have been used in transporting the Welcome's cargo to shore.

Working on a 'tip' received early Saturday night, W. T. Day, chief of the enforcement department, dispatched ten men to the Industrial Canal, where it was reported a cargo of liquor would be unloaded. Upon the arrival of the officers they saw several automobiles parked near the canal.

About twenty men were seated in the cars or were in the vicinity. Chief Day divided the men into two squads - one of three men being sent to Bayou St. John and the other seven to West End.

The Bayou St. John squad were rewarded at 4:30 a.m.

Two speed launches entered the bayou from Lake Pontchartrain. Heading the provisional squadron was the Wayfarer, followed by another launch about 30 feet in length, according to the officers. A shot of warning from the marshes sent the craft hurrying toward the lake.

One of the prohibition officers plunged into the water and managed to reach the Wayfarer as she was turning. He boarded her. Meanwhile, the two officers on the shore pulled their revolvers and shouted to the skipper of the Wayfarer to heave to.

The officer who boarded the launch covered Peterson and instructed him to pick up his companions. When this was done the Wayfarer set out to overtake the other launch. The chase was unsuccessful.

During the chase the pistol battle was staked. There were two men in the second launch and it is reported they opened fire on the Wayfarer and its temporary crew of enforcement officers. While the bullets fell around the launch, no one was hit. Prohibition officers said the men on the second launch had rifles and used them.

When the Wayfarer lost the second launch in the darkness, the officers sighted the big boat they said carried the name Welcome across her stern. They said there were fully eighteen men aboard the Welcome. The officers claimed they could see rifles in their hands. Putting discretion before valor the officers did not attempt to board the Welcome and they watched the larger boat slip her anchor and fade away.

The cargo aboard the Wayfarer is valued at $3000, 'bootleg prices.'" [1]

New Orleanians, are you having trouble picturing an 80-foot launch on the bayou? I know I am. And that wasn't even the mother ship! Although I'm sure the mother ship was in the lake, not on the bayou. I think that for a specific reason: the mouth of the bayou, where it meets the lake, kept silting up, meaning during low tide the bayou was only a couple feet deep in that spot and most boats couldn't get through.

During the first two decades of the twentieth century, jurisdiction over the bayou and the adjoining Carondelet Canal was under dispute—meaning no one was repairing the levees, dredging the mouth, keeping the waterway clear of hyacinth, or giving a darn about the growing number of houseboats, boat houses (both of which were often used as primary residences) and other ragamuffin "eye sores" that were cropping up more and more each day.

Also, just as a reference point, in 1922 the average large house was being sold for somewhere between $5,000 and $15,000—so that's a lotta liquor!

As you raise your glass to toast the New Year tonight, perhaps you'll also think of the "Bayou St. John squad," and this watery, whiskey-soaked boat chase of 94 years ago—in other words, what happens when you try to keep a bayou dry!

  1. "Bullets Fly Free When Dry Forces Hunt Fast Boat Officers Capture Liquor and One Craft." Times-Picayune 4 Jun. 1922: 8. NewsBank. Web. 29 Dec. 2015.

Cassie Pruyn is a New Orleans based poet who is currently working on a narrative history of Bayou St. John in New Orleans. You can see her posts and poetry on her website.