Smugglers on the Sound

Puget Sound has always been smugglers’ water–two thousand miles of crumpled shoreline sprawled across two countries often at political odds. It has been the haunt of sailors smuggling Chinese and opium, whiskey and wool, men like Blue Jay Jimmy and the infamous Smuggler Kelly who smelled badly and whose name was used by exasperated mothers to frighten their children into obedience.

Settlers on the Sound considered it onerous to pay duty on products more cheaply available in Canada, especially Canadian whiskey, and the citizens of Port Townsend were very fond of whiskey. It was said you could dig ten feet deep on Water Street and still smell the cheap whiskey saturating the soil.

Folklore has it that the term bootlegger was derived from the common practice of Port Townsend sailors tucking bottles of whiskey into their high sea boots when returning from Canada.

A brisk trade smuggling Chinese immigrants from Canada developed following passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. Bigots may have resented the thrifty Chinese but their cheap labor was needed and men like Smuggler Kelly filled the need, usually landing their cargo on a remote shore in the dark of a moonless night. Where the Chinese labored, opium also became a commodity.

Prohibition was popular in Washington state until it became law. Most men found that having neither a job nor a drink was an insufferable burden. Supplying liquor illegally provided an income for many during the Great Depression. An entire economy was supported by bootlegging— an army of office workers, accountants, teamsters, lawyers, mechanics, salesmen, and boat crews—including at least one legitimate boatyard.

The Blanchard Boat Company of Ballard was struggling during the Depression. Commissions for new boats were non-existent; even repair work was rare. N.J. Blanchard, the man later responsible for building the famous Blanchard Knockabouts, kept his yard afloat building open launches. They were politely called fast commuters but were in fact rum-runners, all engine and cockpit, designed to carry a light load faster than the Coast Guard could follow.

Not only did N.J. build rum-runners, he ran liquor for Roy Olmstead, the Seattle police lieutenant who decided that being a bootlegger was more profitable than jailing one. Besides becoming Seattle’s largest employer, Olmstead pioneered Seattle radio. His wife broadcast a program of children’s nursery rhymes from their home in the Mount Baker district. All of Olmstead’s boats listened religiously to the broadcast which included encoded instructions. The station call signs were KFQX, later to become KOMO.

Olmstead loaded liquor onboard old schooners in Victoria, B.C., then offloaded them into small boats among the islands of Haro Strait. He preferred smuggling in foul weather to avoid interdiction by the authorities and hijacking by the competition. His boats drove at flank speed through squalls as dark as sin, their running lights doused, and landed crates of liquor on isolated wharves, at boatyards, and even yacht club floats.

In his autobiography Knee Deep in Shavings, Norm Blanchard wrote, "Every cabbie in town knew that for the right price, a customer could get a bottle of bootleg whiskey at the Seattle Yacht Club." Most of that whiskey was supplied by Roy Olmstead and likely delivered to the dock by his father, N.J. Blanchard.

I have a copy of The Centennial History of the Seattle Yacht Club 1892 – 1992. Oddly, I have yet to find a reference in it to smuggling or bootlegging.

Houseboats of Lake Union

In a recent edition of Shavings (May/June 2007), the newsletter of Seattle’s Center for Wooden Boats, Dick Wagner wrote about Gas Works Park, the Duck Dodge race across Lake Union on summer nights when the daylight lingers, and the 1909 international exposition.

The fair was burdened with the name Alaskan-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. The shore of Portage Bay, where the university now stands, was picked for the site. The citizens of Seattle were eager to promote their new city. They planned exhibits of a Tokyo tea house and an Igorrate tribal village. They launched a transcontinental automobile race from New York to Seattle. (In 1900, Seattle had only one motor car.)

But there was a problem.

Continue reading Houseboats of Lake Union