Rumrunners

Thu, 06/04/2020 - 5:30pm

“Hi there,” said the man on a Ocean Avenue front porch. “Nice night.”

The man’s home was midway between Old Harbor and New Harbor. His name was Murphy and was from my hometown of Pawtucket, Rhode Island. I noticed the austere and gabled house had a brass plaque that read Spartan — it was once a speakeasy on Block Island. Mr. Murphy invited my girlfriend and I into his home for a cold libation and a tour. He led us to the back room where drinks were once freely poured after the booze was offloaded at the Hog Pen — Smuggler’s Cove — in New Harbor.

“Look here,” said our host as he slid a panel from the east-facing wall of the bar room. “Folks could see the cops coming down from Old Harbor, and they could hide their booze.” Mr. Murphy had just schooled a couple of 21 year-old kids about the realities of Prohibition on Block Island. The guy also had a sense of the history that literally took place in his backyard.

Prohibition began in 1920 and ended in 1933. This period of shutting down the (legal) production and distribution of alcohol created a national conundrum; there were some folks who wanted to have a drink, and some folks who didn’t. What could go wrong? Politically, this caused a complex rift between many people in our country. For example, let’s say you were a policeman and were ordered to bust a local gin-mill; however, your wife or girlfriend enjoyed a cocktail. What’s a guy or gal to do in a situation like this? It’s a complex question which was magnified on a grand scale during this act of well-intentioned governance. Subsequently, throughout the country, human inventiveness was fully on display, and New England with its coastal features and Yankee ingenuity became a major player in this game of cat and mouse.

Newport’s John and Cahill Taft recently produced a documentary titled, “The Bootleggers”— which was shot in and around Newport Harbor and Jamestown over a four-week period. Both John and Cahill are a very likable, inquisitive, and curious couple who saw the opportunity to tell the story of the boat the Black Duck. It’s a violent and complex story of government overreach and the fool’s errand that was Prohibition. What happened to this boat and crew is a sad metaphor for how Prohibition demonstrated the good, the bad and the ugly of certain aspects of American life, and a tragic endgame for inventive people who — although breaking the law — were trying to supply a demand and make a living.

The Volstead Act was maybe a good idea on paper; the main problem, however, was that Americans liked to drink. Therefore, this Act would come to polarize, politicize, and energize a variety of feisty and thirsty Americans.

John Taft served in the U.S. Coast Guard in Hull, Mass., and is a professional sailor. Cahill is a painter, and also a sailor. The Tafts own a tour boat in Newport Harbor called Rumrunner II; their boat led them to the genesis of making this documentary about the notorious real-life rumrunner, the Black Duck. The couple wanted to film the documentary while using the actual locations and local talent that Newport and the state of Rhode Island had to offer. “Rhode Island has such strong talent and production resources. Steve Feinberg of the Rhode Island Film Office was great, and we primarily wanted to tap into that source,” John said.

Narragansett Bay has these little hideouts all around its island shorelines — it’s a smuggler’s paradise. Moreover, 12 miles offshore was where larger ships sailed to a zone called Rum Row and could offload their product, which primarily came from Newfoundland. The USCG has no jurisdiction at the 12-mile line; therefore, smaller boats like the Black Duck would load up, and then head to Block Island, Newport, Providence, New London and other points to dispatch their wares.

The Black Duck was powered with two 300 horsepower airplane engines and was capable of travelling 30 knots. There was not a single Coast Guard vessel that could catch her. As a result of her speed and reputation she became a target of an overzealous Coast Guard patrol Commander named Alexander C. Cornell, who wanted a notch on his belt to curry favor with his superiors. He got said notch on Dec. 29, 1929 at 0200 hours, when the Coast Guard vessel CG-290 would lie in waiting for the Black Duck, and proceed to fire directly into her wheelhouse and killing three men. A fourth man named Charlie Travers from Newport, survived by only losing his thumb. Cornell did not follow Rules of Engagement protocols — he simply gave orders to his crew, and they were followed. There was tremendous political fallout from this overly aggressive action.

“When I was stationed in Hull in ‘76, our boat was only armed with a Springfield 1903. It was a line throwing gun. It was a different time,” said John Taft. “Cornell was a trigger-happy guy with an agenda — very political.”

Besides retooling the design of their own boat, along with another well-known Newport Harbor mainstay, Farallone — an Army Quartermaster’s launch owned by Newport’s Capt. Jon Heon — the Tafts did a remarkable job of creating the Black Duck and the CG-290 to reenact this historic and tragic moment in Newport’s maritime history.

Additionally, local actors Jed Van Dale and John Halloran played reporters, while Block Island’s own Jacques Boudreau — who plays a pivotal character — worked on the film shoot in Jamestown and Newport. Also, a former student of mine named Leif Husted-Jensen worked as cinematographer for the production. Newport’s Paul Madden wrote and directed the film. Finally, to learn more about this great effort with solid production values, visit: Black Duck Productions on Facebook.