The Legend of Whiskey Harbor During Michigan Prohibition

Legend of Whiskey Harbor Cover

On the eastern edge of Michigan’s Thumb lies a lonely and very rocky cove on the shore of Lake Huron. The remote area sits on a layer of limestone that makes it hard to build on so it remains undeveloped to this day. It’s hard to imagine that this beautiful remote setting was the site for criminal activity during the time of Michigan Prohibition for over 12 years.

The Dry Times – Michigan Prohibition

Dumping Whiskey - Library of Congress
Dumping Whiskey – Library of Congress

Efforts started in 1852 by Michigan church, business, and community leaders to ban the sale of alcohol. It was thought that such temperance would reduce crime, improve family life, and increase employee productivity. Their efforts succeeded in 1916, when the citizens of Michigan approved a prohibition amendment to the state constitution. As soon as the law took effect in May 1917, bootlegging operations and smuggling networks from Canada formed.

Organized Crime Gangs Step In for a Thirsty Michigan

Seizing Booze During Michigan Prohibition
Raid at Elk Lake Ontario 1925

With the supply of liquor gone, bootleggers turned to Canada, which had favorable liquor laws. The notorious Purple and Sugar House Gangs began trafficking bootlegged liquor from Canada and into Michigan via the Detroit River, Lake St. Clair, and even the shoreline of the Thumb. In the winter, smugglers drove across sections of the Detroit river or skated across the ice, dragging sleds full of booze.

The Origin of the Purple Gang in Detroit

The Purple Gang

The Purple Gang and the Oakland Sugar House Gang emerged in Detroit almost simultaneously. The boys grew up in a neighborhood was known as Paradise Valley in Detroit’s lower east side, and most of them went to Bishop School. There they begun hanging together and coordinate in petty crimes that such as shoplifting and burglary from local Jewish merchants.

Once they graduated from school the two groups joined forces distilling liquor at the Oakland Sugar House located on Oakland Street. The gang was really a loose confederation, hiring themselves out to differed syndicate crime organizations. However, they established the entire Southeast Michigan region as their territory for smuggling booze from Canada. Their favorite merchandise was a Canadian whiskey called Old Log Cabin which was in demand by Al Capone in Chicago.

An Isolated and Remote Shore of Whiskey Harbor

Whiskey Harbor Today. From Google Earth/NOAA

The area now denoted has Whiskey Harbor is a picturesque rocky shoreline with mud flats and low lying marshy areas inland. It was owned by the Kernan family since 1902 and thought to be used primarily for cattle grazing.

Whiskey Harbor - Michigan Prohibition
Whiskey Harbor – Harbor Beach Digital Collection

Local lore tells that this isolated spot had been the rendezvous point for whiskey smuggling since the 1890s. So it’s no surprise that during prohibition that the spot was the drop off point for good Canadian Whiskey brought over from Ontario. It was thought that there was dredging done to allow fast moving speed boats to drop their cargo right on-shore. Whiskey Harbor was one of the Southeast Michigan locations that accounted for an estimated 75% of all the alcohol smuggled into the United States during Prohibition. By 1929 booze running was Detroit’s second largest industry, netting $215 million per year.

Whisky Harbor in 1940 – Harbor Beach Times

The Harbor Beach Times featured a note about Whiskey Harbor in 1940. The article was about the new M-25 Scenic Highway. The newspaper said that barrels of whiskey were lost in the harbor during the smuggling era in the 1920’s. In 1933, Congress passed a resolution proposing a 21st Amendment to the Constitution that would repeal the 18th. It was ratified by the end of 1933, ending the Prohibition era.

Whiskey Harbor Today

The Shore of Whiskey Harbor in the Spring

The Kernan family has preserved 45 acres of this beautiful shore. In 1989, the family donated the land and harbor to the Michigan Nature Association. You can visit the harbor and take a walk on a trail that leads to a remote beach area. Whiskey Harbor is a prime spot to watch for migrating birds and see an area that has remained basically untouched since the 1880s.

Visting Whiskey Harbor

If you want to visit this remote and wild bit of undeveloped Lake Huron shoreline there is a marked trail. Wear boots and expect to get a bit muddy as the preserve in in a low lying area. Here are a few shots from an early springtime walk to the shore.


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Mike Hardy

Author of a fun loving and event blog covering topics of the Upper Thumb of Michigan , the wind energy capital of the Great Lakes. Offering great trove of information on Wind Energy, Cheeseburger in Caseville, Saginaw Bay, Sailing.

2 Responses

  1. Thanks Mike for your great article. We walked up Pochert road probably hundreds of times exploring the whole area around Whiskey Harbor. We even set up tents and spend several nights there as kids. My Dad and Mom always told us a part of the history but your detail is great. Walking back down Pochert road we would always stop at a big rock which we called the “King of the Flats”. It was a great picnic spot to walk to when the one room school house was at the corner of of M25/Pochert Rd. still existed.

    • Mike Hardy says:

      Thanks Terry,

      It was pretty wet and the lake is high, but the reward of seeing an undeveloped beach is amazing.

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