Rum running along the Orange County coast in the 1920s

NEWPORT BEACH—Orange County’s oceanfront today is dotted with mostly pleasure craft, fishing vessels and cargo ships but from the 1920s through early 1930s, another type of vessel was common in the waters.

According to the Orange County Sheriff’s Museum, during Prohibition, the county’s zig-zagged 42-mile coastline became a convenient rendezvous for “rumrunners” who off-loaded English and Canadian liquor in the county’s numerous hidden coves, sometimes for national distribution. The ban of liquor sale and distribution in the United States first was proposed as the 18th Amendment to the Constitution by the U.S. Congress on Dec. 18, 1917 and took effect Jan. 17, 1920.

As booze supplies began to run out, the demand for liquor increased, and the age of bootlegging and rum-running began.

Tony Cornero, known as Tony the Hat, was one of Southern California’s most famous rumrunners. Cornero would later turn up as the owner of The Rex, the notorious gambling ship that operated off the South Bay coast during the 1930s. The mobster used a shrimp boat as his cover to smuggle massive shipments of whiskey and rum into Southern California. His shrimp boat would reportedly idle three miles offshore while small skiffs, painted black, delivered case upon case of contraband to Laguna’s secret coves. One of the popular drop off points for the contraband was Crescent Bay, which was isolated from view from the rest of the coast making it an ideal spot to truck in the booze.

In the South Bay, the Palos Verdes Peninsula became a favorite landing spot for rum running ships.

Once on shore, the contraband was trucked to locations throughout the county. One of Laguna Beach’s oldest standing structures, the Murphy Smith Bungalow, where the Laguna Beach Historical Society is currently based, was a favorite stash spot for rumrunners.

According to the Daily Breeze, a brief gun battle erupted at the old Anaheim Landing in Seal Beach on July 1, 1923 when the Coast Guard and federal agents seized a fishing boat carrying liquor. Crew members attempted to throw some of the estimated 100 cases overboard, but it was quickly recovered.

Bootlegging and rumrunning came to an end alongside the end of Prohibition, which officially ended Dec. 5, 1933 with the ratification of the 21st amendment.


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