On the eastern edge of Michigan’s Thumb lies the lonely and rocky cove of Whiskey Harbor 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
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 on May 1917, bootlegging operations and smuggling networks from Canada formed.
Organized Crime Gangs Step In for a Thirsty Michigan
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 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 began hanging together and coordinating 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 different 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.
Old Log Cabin Whiskey and Its Association with the Purple Gang and Al Capone
There is no brand of whiskey that is more synonymous with the Purple Gang and Chicago gangster Al Capone then Old Log Cabin bourbon whiskey. The bourbon was distilled in Montreal Canada by Distillers Corporation, at their LaSalle distillery. The company distributed its product specifically for smuggling into the United States. Distillers founder, Sam Bronfman, actually created targeted markets of New York, New Jersey and Chicago. Ships would sail right to the edge of US-controlled waters, known as rum rows, on the east coast and Great Lakes and conduct transfers directly with the smugglers.
Today collectors search for, and collect vintage bottles of Old Log Cabin. This bottle is believed to be smuggled in to the US in the late 1920s. It was found online for a cost of US $1,300. This smuggler recipe of bourbon has recently been revived by Batch 206 Distillery in Washington State.
The Isolated and Remote Shore of Whiskey Harbor
The area now denoted as Whiskey Harbor is a picturesque rocky shoreline with mudflats and low-lying marshy areas inland. It was owned by the Kernan family since 1902 and thought to be used primarily for cattle grazing.
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.
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 1920s. 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 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 is in a low-lying area. Here are a few shots from an early springtime walk to the shore.
- Harbor Beach Area District Library Digital Collection
- Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University
- Google Earth
- Michigan Nature Association – Kernan Memorial Nature Sanctuary
Related Reading for Michigan Prohibition
- Michigan Native American Trails of the Upper Thumb
- Port Hope’s Beautifully Restored Train Depot
- Ora Labora Colony Struggles During the Civil War
- Huron County Nature Center is a Wild Walk
- Canada Wants a Nuclear Waste Dump Less Than 70 Miles From Michigan