Amid the struggles of the Great Depression, Dec. 5, 1933, brought about a reason to celebrate: the repeal of the Volstead Act, which officially ended the era of Prohibition. But the temperance movement had lost traction long before, and the 1920s saw one of the most glorious, booze-soaked decades in history.
Much has been written about the myriad ways spirits made their way into speakeasies, clubs, and people’s homes, but Champagne flowed freely as well. Much of the bubbly came from an overlooked part of Prohibition history: a small archipelago off the Newfoundland Coast called St. Pierre and Miquelon. With this year marking the 90th anniversary of Repeal Day, VinePair takes a look at these islands and how Champagne made its way into U.S. drinking culture in the time of Prohibition.
Located just 15 miles from the Newfoundland coast, the islands total 93 square miles in area. However, 90 percent of the 6,000-strong population (4,000 people in 1920) reside on the 10-square-mile mass known as St. Pierre.
For centuries, cod fishing was the primary industry. Being so remote, residents of the fog-shroud islands have historically relied on trade and imports for most of their resources. Although mere miles from Canadian shores, the islands were, and still are, under French rule since 1816 — the most important element that led to booming success during Prohibition.
The first American to take interest in the islands was Bill McCoy, a rumrunner who already had success with trade routes between New York and Nassau, the Bahamas. After being stranded in Halifax in 1921 and awaiting repairs to his ship Tomoka in a hotel, he learned about the existence of St. Pierre and Miquelon from another guest named Foulquet.
“At times, the line of mother ships stretched from the eastern end of Long Island, New York, to Cape May in southern New Jersey.”
“McCoy, realizing that the other gentleman had a French accent, spontaneously asked him where he was from in Quebec,” writes J.P. Andrieux in “Rumrunners: The Smugglers from St. Pierre and Miquelon and the Burin Peninsula From Prohibition to Present Day.” “He was told that he wasn’t, but that he came from the French Islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon located off Newfoundland’s south coast. McCoy was astonished. He wasn’t aware that France had a colony so close to Canadian soil.” McCoy took Tomoka to the islands, where residents offered him French wine, Champagne, and spirits to bring back to the States. Immediately, he saw the potential for bigger business.
A sharp-minded sailor, McCoy is also credited with creating what is known as Rum Row, a line of booze-smuggling ships that sat off the U.S. shoreline. Once ships picked up the liquid contraband from the islands (originally the Bahamas, and later St. Pierre and Miquelon) they made their way back to the U.S. But they docked far enough away from the coast so they technically floated in international waters.
The largest and most well-known Rum Row was situated near New York Harbor. “At times, the line of mother ships stretched from the eastern end of Long Island, New York, to Cape May in southern New Jersey,” writes J. Anne Funderberg in “Rumrunners: Liquor Smugglers on America’s Coasts, 1920–1933.” The ships would then offload their wares to small speedboats, which had a number of monikers, such as contact boats, mosquito boats, shore runners, rum luggers, and more. These fast-moving vessels would engage in a game of tag with Coast Guard boats on the hunt for illegal activity. If they escaped capture, they’d be met on the shores by trucks, which would whisk the bottles away to thirsty patrons and impatient club owners.
But to fully exploit the possibilities of the French islands, there was one obstacle to overcome. In 1919, the French government had enacted a ban on imports of foreign sugar, molasses, and alcohol to all of its colonies and land holdings except for Tunisia and Morocco, in an effort to protect the post-war economy. Under the guidance of McCoy, Foulquet and other local merchants petitioned the French government to remove the ban, and in 1922, the doors to St. Pierre opened to European alcoholic beverages. Even better, the tax rate on a case was a mere $0.40, versus the $6.00 per case charge in Nassau.
Almost immediately, wine, Champagne, and other booze flowed in, and “fishermen quickly abandoned their traditional occupation and overnight became stevedores, warehousemen, and cargo operators,“ according to Andrieux. In 1922, it was estimated that commercial activity on the island yielded 96 million francs (approximately $8.86 million). One year later, the archipelago raked in 298 million francs (approximately $27.5 million), thanks to the new trade. New roads were built, new schools were constructed, and almost all infrastructure was vastly improved, thanks to the influx of income.
“The Heidsieck Champagne house sold more bubbly to the United States during the thirteen years of Prohibition than ever before.”
The shipments themselves provided an extra boon to the formerly hardscrabble economy. Bottles would arrive in wooden crates, but their weight made them difficult to unload once ashore. Plus, the rattling sound was as good as a bullhorn in alerting the Coast Guard to illegal activity. So, glass vessels were repacked in sacks and stuffed with straw for cushioning. The wooden crates were then repurposed by islanders for a myriad of construction projects.
Prohibition dealt a serious blow to the domestic wine industry in the U.S., and it took decades for winemakers to recover. However, foreign wines and Champagnes flourished from the French connection to St. Pierre and Miquelon.
Jean-Charles Heidsieck, grandson of “Champagne Charlie,” the gregarious owner of Champagne Charles Heidsieck, came to the U.S. in 1922 to witness Prohibition firsthand. Understanding the opportunities available, he smuggled Champagne through the islands. “The Heidsieck Champagne house sold more bubbly to the United States during the thirteen years of Prohibition than ever before,” write Don and Petie Kladstrup in “Champagne Charlie: The Frenchman Who Taught Americans to Love Champagne.”
In 2020, Champagne Piper-Heidsieck even commemorated the time period and its own trade route via St. Pierre and Miquelon with a special Prohibition label bottling. One could even say the success seen during Prohibition helped a region still struggling from the damage of World War I regain its footing.
While the end of Prohibition was celebrated across the 50 states, it prompted an opposite reaction in St. Pierre and Miquelon. On the day of the announcement, trucks transporting booze to and from warehouses staged a mock funeral procession with American and French flags at half-staff.
Today, the islands have largely returned to their original trade — fishing — but for a brief period in history, the booze and Champagne that filled the waters were the hottest commodity. Without St. Pierre and Miquelon, Prohibition might have looked very different.
The article The Tiny Islands That Kept Champagne Flowing During Prohibition appeared first on VinePair.