‘Queen of Rum Row’: Prohibition and the SS Malahat | History Hit
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‘Queen of Rum Row’: Prohibition and the SS Malahat

Lloyds Register Foundation

28 Jun 2021
The SS Malahat
Image Credit: State Library, Queensland / Public Domain

The Lloyd’s Register Foundation’s Heritage & Education Centre are the custodians to an archive collection of maritime, engineering, scientific, technological, social and economic history that stretches back to 1760. One of their largest archive collections – their ship plan and survey report collection – numbers a colossal 1.25 million records, for vessels as diverse as the Mauretania, Fullagar and Cutty Sark.

Consisting of survey reports, ship plans, certificates, correspondence and the weird and wonderfully unexpected, the Lloyd’s Register Foundation are committed to cataloguing and digitising this collection for free open access and are pleased to announce that over 600,000 of these are online and available for viewing.

They’ve delved into their collection to bring us the story of the SS Malahat – a ship that epitomises one of the most iconic elements of the roaring 20s, the era of prohibition in the United States.

The SS Malahat’s early days

The Lloyd’s Register Foundation has several documents relating to the SS Malahat in their archive, from 1917-1924 – the year she was withdrawn from the Register Book.

The Malahat was a five-masted schooner sailing vessel, built in 1917 by Cameron Genoa Mills Shipbuilders in Victoria, British Columbia. She was built for the Canada West Coast Navigation Co, and measured 1,550 gross tons, and was 245 feet in length. Due to the need for ships during the First World War, she was pressed into service, delivering lumber from Canada to Australia before her engines were eventually installed after she returned from her maiden voyage.

The plans for SS Malahat by Cameron Genoa Mills Shipyards, 11 May 1917

Rum rows

Rum rows existed on both the East and West coasts of America, and were essentially a line of ships loaded with contraband alcohol that floated in international waters, just beyond the remit of the US Coast Guard.

Established near major US ports, local rum runners loaded alcohol from these freight ships at night and then smuggle this into port at a huge profit. Some of the earliest were in Florida where rum, sourced from the Caribbean, gave the trade the name ‘rum row’. On the West coast rum row, the largest exported spirit was whisky from Canada.

In 1924, the maritime limit was extended from 3 miles to 12 miles to further dissuade the rum runners. However, ironically the US Coast Guard ended up serving as a helpful protector to the rum row ships; they could not legally intervene in their trade while they were outside American waters but their presence helped to ward off hijackers and pirates that might disrupt activity.

Example of rum runner cargo – pictured here is rum runner sloop ‘Kirk and Sweeney’ with alcohol stacked on deck, 13 January 1924

‘Queen of Rum Row’

Between 1920-1933, SS Malahat was employed in the illegal rum-running trade off the Pacific, west of America. It is believed that the Malahat successfully smuggled more contraband liquor than any other ship during that period, earning her the nickname of the ‘Queen of Rum Row’.

The ship was sold to the ‘Consolidated Exports Company’ in around 1922 – which was secretly a rum-running operation export business that worked the Pacific west coast from Canada to Mexico, a part of rum row.

Captain Stuart Stone, the master of the Malahat estimated that due to the huge size of the schooner (owing to her original purpose as a lumber hauler), she could carry up to 100,000 bottles of spirit – approximately 50,000 cases. They would load-up the Malahat with the most well-known brands available of whisky, gin, liqueurs and champagne, and it is believed that they would offload around 120,000 cases annually between 1920-1933, averaging around one or two trips every year.

A part of the rum row community, the Malahat also carried food and other general stores that could be sold to other rum row freights or runners that had not been prepared. Interestingly, Malahat received offers to transport drugs into the US for the cartels operating out of Mexico, but this was refused on the grounds that it would have made Malahat’s crew criminals under both Canadian and American law.

Extract of Survey of the SS Malahat, 20 September 1917

Avoiding the Coast Guard

For the entire 13 year period of prohibition in the United States, Malahat operated continuously, and wasn’t once caught, despite the best efforts of the Coast Guard.

Captain Stone was master aboard Malahat until his death in 1933 and received $600 a month plus room and board. Fortuitously, Captain Stone’s sister-in-law – who lived near Jericho Beach, Vancouver – would supposedly receive coded message from the sympathetic Coast Guard there and transmit these to Malahat to give them advanced warning of their whereabouts.

Such sympathy for the Malahat from certain elements of the Coast Guard was perhaps understandable. During the Great Depression, historians credit the activities of the rum runners as having kept the shipyards of Vancouver solvent, as they worked to build and maintain the rum row fleets.

(Two other captains also served aboard SS Malahat during her rum-running era, Arthur McGillis, and John D Vosper).

A watery end

At the end of prohibition in America in 1933, the Malahat was sold, and resumed her original service in the lumber trade as a self-propelled log barge between the Queen Charlotte Islands, and Desolation Sound.

She later foundered in Barkley Sound in 1944, and was towed to Powell River, British Columbia, where her wreck remains and is now a popular diving site.

The Lloyd’s Register Foundation’s Heritage & Education Centre’s ship plan and survey report collection numbers a colossal 1.25 million records. The Lloyd’s Register Foundation are committed to cataloguing and digitising this collection for free open access and are pleased to announce that over 600,000 of these are online and available for viewing.

Lloyds Register Foundation