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Fast Cars, Illegal Booze and the Yellowstone Trail

The Yellowstone Trail has been used by many people for business and pleasure. There were people going on vacation, trucks moving merchandise and farmers taking their harvest to market. While most of this activity was legal transport, there were some who used the trail to profit from their illegal enterprises.

In 1915 Washington & Idaho voted to become "Dry States" by outlawing liquor sales on January 1, 1916. Even though liquor sales became illegal, the demand for it did not slow down. 

The citizens of Seattle had the luxury of the Puget Sound and could easily get the hooch from Canada. Spokane on the other hand is landlocked and needed a different way to procure the outlawed spirits.

Spokane looked to Montana which was still a "Wet State". All one needed to do was have a good car and run the booze from places like Missoula and drive the Yellowstone Trail back to Spokane and make a nice payday. 

The era of the "Rum Runner" was born. Prohibition overnight created a whole new group of lawbreakers but unlike the gangster bootleggers of Chicago, these men had never engaged in criminal activity. These "rum runners", as they preferred to be called, regarded themselves simply as entrepreneurs filling a legitimate demand.

The Yellowstone Trail between Missoula and Spokane became the main route of the rum runners. They needed good roads as the cars were over loaded and driven at reckless speeds. 

They also needed good cars. Large Buicks and Mitchell's were preferred autos and they modified these cars with false floorboards or extra "dummy" fuel tanks to hide the hooch. 

Tires were also very important to the rum runner and they would buy the best on the market. Many a runner was busted due to tire failure. Tires became so important that there were some tire companies who made a tire especially for the runners.

Powerful cars were a must as the runners did not want a confrontation with police. The hope was to elude the cops. But if the runner could not elude, he then needed to out run them. 

The rum runner's automobiles were usually faster than the police and could drive at speeds of 60 to 75 mph. It was always better to out run them as the cops were trigger happy and up until 1926 it was legal to shoot at suspected felons. After 1926 the federal dry agents could only shoot in self defense.

Being a Federal Dry Agent was a dangerous job. In addition to chasing down rum runners they were also tasked with nabbing the bootleggers. In 1921 there were 125 dry agents killed and 3500 wounded nationwide since the rum runner war had began..

Many harrowing chases ensued over the years. One runner was killed on the YT near Taft, Montana when his truck tipped over during a chase. In another incident police captured 2 runners after a 70 mile chase at high speeds.

The following is a quote from a dry agent during a stakeout in 1922. "In the dead of the night the squad's big six touring car a powerful Paige Lakewood capable of travelling 75 mph stands poised on the side of the road ready for action. In it sit 5 strong arm men of the law with the lights out waiting for their prey.

Then a throb of a distant engine filters through the heavy night air. A car is approaching from the rear at high speed. The squad prepares for action ready for attack when the proper moment arrives. The approaching runners are within 200 feet of the waylayers when suddenly the road is lit up by the cops headlights.

The runner grits his teeth pushes the accelerator to the floor and runs past the squad. Shots directed at the waylayers ring out as they speed on by. Return shots are fired at the runner's car tires as they whizz by." The chase is on!

"Away go the outlaws at top speed with the squad fast on their heels. Gradually the Paige is able to catch up to the runners. Shots are fired at the squad but then cease as the outlaws run out of ammunition. 

As the Paige comes along side of the outlaws, one cop leaps from his car's floorboard to the outlaws car and there the chase ends and the outlaws apprehended. "

While most cops were honest, there were those who could be bribed. Not all wanted prohibition so the runners had to know who was corruptible and who was not. Chicago had Elliot Ness but Butte, Montana had Jack Melia the most feared man of the rum runners. 

He was the head of the Dry Squad of Silver Bow County. He is credited with many busts. One bust made by Melia according to the Butte Daily on February 3, 1917. The headline ran; "Guests Unknown at Fine Dinner - Nick Peris fined $50 for "entertaining" strange guests in roadhouse".

Nick Peris who owned a hog ranch, had a roadhouse in the barn. He denied having such a place. He was accused of handing a bottle of whiskey and 2 glasses to a man and woman. 

The cops busted in and confiscated the bottle as evidence. The poor man and woman did not get their drink. The defendants were found not guilty.

In another case, Melia had arrested 3 men and seized 140 cases of whiskey. During the trial the men testified that they purchased the whiskey last December before prohibition went into effect and that they all 3 had pooled their money to make the buy and planned to use the cases of pints and quarts for personal use. It was legal to consume already purchased liquor prior to the ban. Melia said that this was the story of every person he ever caught with booze.

Melia resigned as head of the Dry Squad in 1920 due to the allegations that he was selling the confiscated liquor that was stored by the county. He was never convicted.

Here is a rhyme that was in the Butte Daily Bulletin 1919.

John Melia and Joe Jackson are hand in glove again. They are tracking the old bootlegger into his very den. John Melia is abroad with a star pinned to his breast. And for the whiskey peddler, there is no peace or rest. For soon as he gets started up and things begin to hum. 

The poor bootlegger feels so sad, as he stands behind the bar. For Melia is upon the trail and he won't get very far. The poor old whiskey peddler is chased from place to place. But no matter where he goes he will soon see Melia's face. 

For Melia hangs upon their trail, the same as the bloodhound. And he never gives up the chase until he runs them down. For at the sound of Melia's name, the bravest of them pale. And many of their members are in the county jail. 

And many of them have left for foreign parts remote. Since Melia has stepped out and gathered in their goat. So blindpiggers take warning, no matter where you are, Jack Melia is upon your trail, with his pistol and his star.

On January 1, 1919 Montana voted to become "Dry" and the rest of the US went dry on January 26, 1920. This altered the routes the runners took. Now the hooch had to be smuggled in from Canada. 

This created new problems for the inland runners. Now they have an international border to cross. This meant bribing border agents. They also had to contend with hijackers. These are people who found it easier to hijack the runners instead of trying to smuggle the hooch across the border.

Canada quickly realized the potential of a highly taxed American trade and opened export houses along the border to serve the rum runners. One of these new routes was to cross the border near Grand Forks head south to Wilber and then take the Yellowstone Trail to Spokane. 

The runners soon learned to pay the ferryman five bucks instead of the usual fifty cents so he would wake at any hour to help the runner get his hooch across the Columbia River.

Spokane during prohibition became the central point for liquor distribution in the Inland Empire. Speakeasies sprang up in the downtown with the bulk of them in the basements along Trent Alley that was near the train depot. 

There used to be a place along the alley where you could walk along and drop your money down a hole. A hand would reach up and give you a drink. The cops did little to stop the speakeasies. Some were patrons, as were many judges and prosecutors. 

In addition to the rum runners, bootlegging was also big business. Chicago had it's Al Capone but Spokane had it's own Al. His name was Albert Commellini. He owned the upscale Ambassador's club. He used his Italian import company, to import the required ingredients for moonshine. 

He then supplied the bootleggers. Some would locate their stills along the Idaho - Washington state line. This was because the State Survey and the Federal Survey were inconsistent to the tune of about 40 feet. 

When Idaho cops showed up to bust the still they would point to the survey stake that would show that they are in Washington. If Washington cops showed up they would just point to the correct misleading marker showing they were in Idaho.

Commellini was often arrested, but none of the charges stuck. Commellini was careful about keeping his records where police would never find them. It was rumored that he had a speakeasy in the basement of his own home.

Rum runners looked down upon the bootleggers. Bootlegged liquor was often low grade or even poisonous while the rum runners goods were destined for the well to do.

The Elegant Davenport Hotel which served many a traveler on the YT once had a famous night club in the basement called the Early Bird Lounge that had become a speakeasy during prohibition. 

To protect the place from raids, the speakeasies became good at blocking and bolting the doors to prevent entry. In the event of a raid the bartender could smash the bottles. Drains and faucets were nearby to wash away any hint of booze.

By the 1930s, the Depression hit and people desperately needed jobs and the U. S. government was now in need of money. It was decided that legal alcohol sales could generate both jobs and money so Prohibition was repealed in 1933.

The rum runners were now out of a job and most went back to legitimate business just as before.

Written 2017


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