There’s a fascinating new documentary airing this month on WLRN, the local PBS television station: Prohibition and the South Florida Connection. This one-hour film by award-winning journalist Steve Waxman chronicles a colorful and chaotic period of U.S. history with a special focus on South Florida’s role.
Through interviews, archival photos and video, the program takes an in-depth look at the region’s relationship with rum importers from the Bahamas, along with the culture of profits and crime that defined this infamous era. From Al Capone to local speakeasies to the corrupt police, it reveals a wanton yet endearing chapter of South Florida history.
Check the official WLRN site for air times. The local special comes on the heels of the nationwide PBS special, Prohibition, a three-part, 5 1/2-hour documentary film series directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick that tells the story of the rise, rule, and fall of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the entire era it encompassed.
* Click here for more info and local air times
In South Florida, we had a unique culture and much different issues than most of the rest of the country. During Prohibition, which lasted from 1920 to 1933, most of the illicit activity around the United States involved “bootlegging” – manufacturing and/or transporting illegal liquor, much of it of poor-quality and from stills.
But here, high-quality rum and an endless supply of spirits were available less than 200 miles away in Nassau. In between, however, stood the treacherous Florida Straits. Thus began the dangerous and romantic era of “rum-running” and all the extraordinary characters associated with it. One of the most famous was William McCoy, a captain and boat builder whose supply was known to be of such high quality that his booze was called “the Real McCoy,” arguably the source of this common term.
The show does a great job documenting this rich history via interviews with folks who remember era, children and grandchildren of the famous smugglers, historians, journalists, and teachers. You get a real feel for what it was like during South Florida’s own version of the Wild West.
At first, the Coast Guard couldn’t keep up with the flow of illegal hooch. Ships would line up along the boundary of U.S. and international waters, which was then just 3 miles off the coast. This no-man’s land became known as “Rum Row.” Rum-runners were more worried about being ambushed by other smugglers than the feds. This chaos resulted in a change in U.S. law, pushing territorial waters out to 12 miles.
In addition to boats, small planes were used to transport cases upon cases of rum from Cuba and the Bahamas. Pilots and adventurous ship captains became local heroes. The liquor was loaded onto false-bottomed Pullman train cars by the likes of Al Capone, who then lived in Miami, and shipped all over the United States.
But an ample supply also found its way into the private homes of South Florida’s rich and famous, along with the many speakeasies and private clubs of the era. Two have survived to this day:
Tobacco Road is Miami’s oldest bar, built in 1912. During Prohibition, what’s now the upstairs bar was a speakeasy that still has that dark and sinister vibe all these years later. Tobacco Road will be celebrating its 99th anniversary on Nov. 11 (11-11-11). Click here for a recent New Times feature.
Farther north in what’s now Lighthouse Point in northern Broward County, a famous rum-runner named Eugene Theodore “Cap” Knight opened a restaurant/speakeasy in 1928 that later become known as Cap’s Place. Famous for serving Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and many other celebrities over its 80-year history, it’s now on the National Register of Historic Places. Located on a reclusive island accessible only by boat, the family-run Cap’s Place is still a popular tourist destination, offering a unique, early Florida atmosphere.
For a real-life history lesson along with your food and drinks, be sure to check out these living, breathing museums of South Florida’s infamous rum-running past.
Related: Wikipedia rum-running topic | Cocktails.About.com: The story of Prohibition
Books: Run the Rum In: Rumrunners, Bootleggers & Stills
And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails