Rum Running in New Brunswick

By Anne Marie Murphy

The Border Towns of N.B. and Maine

For this installment a debt of gratitude goes to Carol-Ann Nicholson, B.J. Grant, “Bobby”, “Gary Webber”, “Ravin’”, Doug Dougherty, “Christine” and Joe Flewelling.
Oh, roll me over a barrel of rum
And I’ll roll you over a barrel of oil
We’ll laugh in our sleeve as they take their leave
And depart from their native soil
—Song of the Smuggler ~ Unknown source, c. 1890s

Calais – St. Stephen “Oh, yes, smuggling was practiced as a fine art,” Doug Dougherty agreed, “and carried out on a truly magnificent scale on the St. Croix River.”

Dougherty, a St. Stephen resident and author, is a local historian and a valuable resource to the St. Croix Library, the Charlotte County Museum and the Historical Society. He has collected many of the old stories that would suffer loss had he not diligently transcribed them for future generations. He has graciously assented to having one of his stories re-told here.

This story is of a man who made a daily trip trundling a wheelbarrow over to Calais in the morning and back again at night. Customs officials watched these proceedings with growing concern. They knew he was smuggling something, but a detailed search of the wheelbarrow every day turned up little of value.

The man continued this practice for some time, until finally one day an officer asked him.

“We know you are smuggling something.

We watch you go over and back every day. We will forfeit all duties and excise on your smuggled goods if you will just tell us what it is you are smuggling.”

The man replied, “Wheelbarrows. I smuggle wheelbarrows.”

On any given map showing the International Line between Maine and New Brunswick, it is shown as a hyphenated line slicing the middle of the St. Croix River. Today, crossing that line is processed by producing a passport.

It wasn’t always this way. The edges of the line are fuzzy, blurred and smudged by the locals themselves.

In fact, people from both sides of the river work in the town opposite their residency. It is not uncommon to shop in each other’s stores – the shopper patronizing the country whose dollar is the strongest. It has long been tradition to ignore the governmentimposed boundary lines.

Dougherty and Christine, both St. Stephen-area residents, describe a system used for doing business with Calais.

Dougherty speaks of a Joe Flewelling, an old story teller who tells of a time when Customs officers did not work at night. Many people walked to the other side after midnight when there was no one around.

Flewelling goes on record as telling that the front street of St. Stephen was built on piers, “and it was done for smuggling.” The piers extended into the St. Croix River, which their premises backed onto or fronted.

“Some of the stores had cables running from their stores across the river and at night they would go over by boat, hand over hand, following the cable line, and there wasn’t a sound.

St. Stephen people were nothing if not discreet.”

Carol-Ann Nicholson, a St. Stephen resident and journalist, said, “Smuggling, or the myth of smuggling, is an acknowledged way of life for many border people, and always has been.

Perhaps, because of our particular situation, our proximity to one another, we are not adverse to the occasional acquisition of goods from another country, and we really don’t want to have those goods conform to revenue laws or import duties.”

Border towns grew of necessity. A border town borders on one of two things – an international line or a body of water defining that international line. Neither the U.S. nor the Canadian governments believe their citizens have the right to transport goods across the line. Note how far into history this belief extends. The Customs District of Passamaquoddy was established in 1790. It serviced the localities of St.Andrews, St. Stephen, Oak Bay, Lubec, Calais, Robbinston, St. George and Perry. The office was on Moose Island, known today as Eastport, Maine.

The government was obviously aware there were revenues to collect, money to be made. As far back as 1803, 13 years after Customs was established, Patrick Campbell writes, “Along the St. Croix River, fishing, trade and smuggling are the principal activities.

Moose Island, indeed, is inhabited by a band of Yanky smugglers that carry on a contraband traffic with the colonies on each side.”

Has anything changed? Who among the residents of Charlotte County returning from a fishing expedition to Eastport has not have or know of others who have stashed a bottle of American rum either thrown in with the fishing gear or trolled beneath the boat? And they are not alone in this practice.

Woodstock-Houlton “Yep, first Customs officer was Herb Lindsay, here in Woodstock. He lived in the big yellow house with the green trim, right where the Southern Carleton School is now. Yep, that was the Customs house,” declared Gary Webber, a retired Customs officer.

In the year 1924 there was no Customs house in existence where the Woodstock-Houlton road crosses the boundary line, neither on the Canadian side nor the American side. On the New Brunswick side there was a Customs house in the location mentioned by Webber. On the U.S. side, it was located well into Houlton.

Eddie Smith, an American, was a well-known runner of the era. In the summer of 1924, Eddie and his band of cohorts went camping. They set up tents and camping supplies and squatted just inside the Canadian border.

This was his base camp for his lucrative rum-running business.

After one of his escapades, a night in July, newspapers reported a highspeed chase through the streets of Woodstock at 50 mph, the cops hot on his tail. Woodstock officers nabbed him and extradited him back to Maine.

He was wanted there, it was said, “for a more serious crime.”

In this story, what comes to our attention is that Woodstock’s finest were on this. The fact, alone, that any of their law enforcement vehicles could reach 50 mph is impressive.

This was an era when the 1924 Model T Ford was a flathead four-cylinder engine. The Touring Model had only 20 horsepower. Today’s citizens would have cause to be impressed with the state-of-the-art machines owned by the Town of Woodstock at that time.

McAdam-Vanceboro-St. Croix McAdam today is a small village of approximately 1,500 located in southwestern New Brunswick. It is located in the upper St. Croix River watershed.

Originally named the curious City Camp in the 1860s, it became a rail hub. The New Brunswick and Canada Railway took over from a previous rail line that had issues with the borders of Quebec and the U.S. The N.B. and C. passed through City Camp from St. Andrews and on up the line to Canterbury and Debec. The rail company made the rail terminus at Richmond Corner rather than Woodstock. A large roundhouse and grand station house resulted to accommodate the vast number of people transiting through McAdam. A 30-room hotel was built over the train station to accommodate overnighters waiting for connections.

McAdam is a gateway town to the U.S. The Lakeland Trail today extends from McAdam to Vanceboro, Maine.

Like McAdam, Vanceboro was once a booming rail town. Freight trains linked it with points in New Brunswick and Quebec. For Vanceboro, the St Croix River starts at the Vanceboro Dam and tumbles its way to Calais, 32 miles downriver, dumping into Passamaquoddy Bay/Bay of Fundy.

Situated as it is, at the mouth of the Woodstock Road but oddly nowhere near Woodstock, its proximity to Calais and Vanceboro made it fair game in the smuggling rackets.

Kent County was doing its own thriving rum-running trade. Dealers used routes leading through Sussex and on to McAdam.

B.J. Grant tells the story of a rum runner, Milton Stairs, whose transit route habitually passed through McAdam. While transporting one shipment in 1930, Stairs was nailed in McAdam with 60 gallons of smuggled booze headed for the border.

Either McAdam had its own informants, the law makers of the day had been hot on his tail or McAdam was the last ditch effort – the last Canadian port of entry – where he could be apprehended.

The kicker comes as this happened just after Stairs had served 30 days in an American slammer.

Forest City, N.B.- Forest City, Maine Never were the lines fudged anymore than at Forest City. In other places having cities separated by water, they are identified by the dignified term, twin cities—Minneapolis-St. Paul, and, before amalgamation, Fort William-Port Arthur. No one has yet graced Forest City, N.B., and Forest City, Maine, with so elegant a manner of speaking. Perhaps it is because they are not a city after all. (Was Camp City-McAdam ever a city?) In their hey day, their populace may have qualified them as a town. Today they are little more than a village. But they are a Customs point.

At no other point is the line so thin than at Forest City. Separated by The Stream, known to locals as the Thoroughfare leading from North Lake into East Grand Lake, residents on both sides at one time must have found it difficult to determine on which side they stood.

Interviewed for this segment, Ravin’ was his usual fountain of information, willing to discuss, perhaps to pay tribute, to Otto “Ottie” Boone.

“Ottie went to work as a Customs officer at Forest City around 1934 and he lived in the old hotel.”

This hotel , since 1931, had been owned by Rache Grant, a Canterbury entrepreneur who owned a vast estate in the centre of Canterbury, as well as numerous other properties.

“The office was built about the same time,” Ravin’ continues. “Where the bridge is now, once was a dam with a dirt road across the top creating a huge backwater to the west, or upstream now. Here logs were stored during the spring drive.”

The North Lake woods, Fosterville and Forest City at that time must have been considered the wilds of New Brunswick. One may well wonder what the duties of the Customs officer entailed. To bring law into the North Lake woods would have taken a strong man at the helm. Ravin’ attests to this.

“Ottie was probably the first of the new era of customs officers to work out of an office at the border. Previous ones usually worked out of their homes or a makeshift office some distance from the actual border.”

In an ensuing discussion of authority and the manned border, Ravin’ noted, “this new breed only had authority within the immediate area of the border office.” This is a practice that continues today.

New Brunswick people felt they could never be too careful. Thus, if they successfully crossed the border with contraband goods, they were still on the lookout for the newly formed RCMP.

“The RCMP were responsible for the unmanned crossings and unguarded border,” Ravin’ clarifies.

Consequently, the long arm of the law could apprehend and confiscate miles from the border if unlawful substances or illicit booze were suspected.

Both Ravin’ and Webber reminisced the names of the first Customs officers. Later, officers were Sanborn and Moore. Ravin’ related Sanborn worked the American office at Fosterville and, at the same time, opposite Johnny Moore.

Webber, having first-hand information, knew Johnny Moore quite well and tells the following story, painting Moore as having a strong sense of civic duty.

“One day Johnny took a quart of raw alcohol off some feller. And then, as people come along, he offered them a little drink (playing host to his own friends and neighbours) and as he offered he would caution, ‘Now look, you can only have a sip ‘cause ever’body in the community’s got to have one too!’” Webber testifies to the frequent and lucrative business of border running.

For this interview, Webber stated in front of three others present he knew for a fact that “there’s some that say there’s burlap bags with full bottles of booze to this day at the bottom of the Thoroughfare.”

His audience, somewhat impressed, yet suspicious, scoffed, “Naw! Couldn’t be. Not after all this time.”

After eight decades, we may assume the burlap fabric of the bags may be long disintegrated. But who among us is not piqued to think of vintage booze lying at the bottom of The Stream waiting to be plucked from its cold depths? Doesn’t it just titillate our senses to dream of booty from the past surfacing to remind us here in the 21st century of an era of backwoods booze running, of big ole Packards and a lawless band of rum runners bent on making the Border, come gun fire or high water?

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©Anne Marie Murphy 2009