EDITOR’S NOTE - The following article is the second in a two part series on Ogdensburg’s smugglers.
In 1919 when the U.S. Congress banned the manufacture or sale of beer and liquor, Ogdensburg’s traditional role as a home to smugglers resumed. Known as “Little Chicago” for its speakeasies, brothels and trade in illicit alcohol, many city residents made their fortune smuggling beer and liquor from Canada through Ogdensburg.
The late Mark Coakley once recalled that smugglers during Prohibition would sit in their boat out at Ogdensburg’s sandbar and wait for the lights to go out at the Customs station. When the officers would leave for the night, they would unload their shipment of booze in a bread truck that would wait for the Border Patrol to leave before it would pull up to the shore to pick up a shipment.
The late Ray Kentner of Waddington recalled that a wagon that travelled from farm to farm on the Ogdensburg to Waddington road during prohibition actually carried a supply of liquor underneath a fake floor.
The late Jimmy Mills, former owner of The Place, said that the U.S. Border Patrol agents used to tip off the former owner of his bar before federal officers would conduct raids in Ogdensburg. Many of the federal agents used to drink at The Place so they made sure the owner knew ahead of time when they would be checking for illegal alcohol.
The Blue Church cemetery in Maitland, Ont., just a few miles west of Ogdensburg, reportedly has hollow grave stones where bottles of liquor were hidden. American bootleggers would land at the shore, sneak into the graveyard and unscrew metal plates covering the hidden compartments in the headstones to find the alcohol hidden by their Canadian colleagues.
The Greater Ogdensburg Chamber of Commerce advises scuba divers to be on the lookout for sunken cars and trucks littering the bottom of the St. Lawrence River that fell through the ice when smugglers drove them from Canada to the U.S. across the frozen St. Lawrence River, carrying loads of illicit booze.
Old timers in the city say that smugglers in small boats would sometimes hide in the cavity beneath the old stone Bell Flour Mill (next to the Maple City pedestrian bridge) until the Border Patrol’s boat had passed by and the coast was clear.
Bootleggers would sometimes fill wooden crates with bottles of liquor, salt and a flotation device. If federal agents looked like they were going to intercept their boat, they would throw the crate overboard and it would quickly sink to the bottom because of the weight of the salt. The federal agents would search the smugglers boat and find nothing while the water would dissolve the salt. When the crate bobbed back to the surface, the rum runner would be waiting to retrieve his illicit contraband.
Today, scuba divers still find bottles of Canadian liquor and beer littering the bottom of the St. Lawrence River.
By the 1940s and 1950s, the rumrunners were gone, but Ogdensburg’s reputation as the “sin city” of Northern New York was still intact. With more bars than churches and most of them lining the waterfront, Canadians from across Ontario would use the ferry to travel here and party on weekends.
Many of the bars, stores and civic clubs operated illegal slot machines and offered other kinds of gambling.
The late City Councilor Robert Russell said that as a taxi driver in his youth, he supplemented his wages by selling condoms to his customers visiting the city’s brothels.
By 1951, Ogdensburg’s reputation had grown so bad that New York Governor Thomas Dewey asked the New York State Crime Commission to launch a massive investigation that eventually led to state police raids and the arrests of several leading citizens.
If you have a story about Ogdensburg’s smuggling days, e-mail it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
James E. Reagen is a former managing editor of The Journal and Advance News. He is the author of “Warriors of La Presentation” and “Fort Oswegatchie.” He is currently employed by the New York State Senate.