It has been 100 years since Prohibition went into effect—a time when police went to war with rumrunners and bootleggers, and folks bought booze at hidden bars. The majority of Orange County residents at the time agreed with the ban, but we had our fair share of lawbreakers. Here’s what the county looked like during the Prohibition era from 1920 to 1933.
It begins with mysterious flashing lights.
A boat sits miles off Newport Harbor hidden by the darkness of a moonless night, until a glaring white light emits from its deck and breaks the blackness. The signal from the phantom ship is an unrecognizable code of dots and dashes. It’s intended for an unknown recipient on land, who also switches a light on and off in response.
The harbormaster notices the strange activity, as do nearby residents who flood his office with calls. He knows what he’s up against. These are rumrunners, smugglers of booze over water, about to make their move to unload illegal cargo onto shore. If it isn’t stopped, the liquor will fall into the hands of bootleggers, who will distribute it throughout Orange County and across the nation.
Catching sight of the boat, the harbormaster takes off on the water. The chase is on, but the rumrunners slip away noiselessly. It’s a frustration that is a familiar one, but the search continues up and down the coast. The boat is nowhere to be found.
Like other modes of transportation used to smuggle liquor during Prohibition, boats were equipped with sophisticated technology that eased their escapes. Rumrunners were known to use speedboats painted black that could go upward of 40 miles per hour, with bulletproof windows and an exhaust system that was muffled to silence—a device that was usually seen only in expensive cars. The motor vehicles had false bottoms beneath back seats with compartments to hold whiskey that could extend under the seat and behind the upholstering. They had many accomplices, lookouts, and escape plans should that be necessary, so they were a hard group of criminals to catch.
Orange County’s 42 miles of coastline made it an easy and—more often than not—successful target for rumrunners. Ships tauntingly laid in wait outside “rum row,” at the edge of the U.S.’s maritime borders, until they could sneak illegal cargo into port. Once there, they’d be met by men to help load the goods onto inconspicuous trucks waiting on shore.
The boat that visited Newport Harbor that evening returned night after night. Similar scenarios occurred up and down the county’s coastline, from Seal Beach to Huntington Beach, Crystal Cove, Laguna Beach, and all the way to San Clemente.
The 18th Amendment went into effect in 1920, forbidding the production, importation, exportation, and sale of liquor across the nation. Its most ardent supporter was the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, who believed liquor caused havoc and that Orange County had a problem with public drunkenness.
“Before the Prohibition law went into effect, it was a very common thing to see a drunken brawl in Santa Ana and on the streets of the rest of the towns throughout the county. The courts and jails were always full of drunken men and women, and this was a great expense to the taxpayers of the community,” wrote Lecil Slaback, a 14-year-old Santa Ana boy who won an essay contest conducted by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in 1926. “In Santa Ana, there were many saloons along the north side of Fourth street, between Broadway as well as down Sycamore, between Fourth and Fifth streets. No woman or child ever dared to walk on these streets,” he added.
The majority of Orange County agreed that banning alcohol was the right thing to do. The county had voted to go dry in the general election of 1900, but it was quietly unenforced.
“Orange County was more conservative than a lot of other counties. I think that you would find people rebelling against Prohibition more in urbanized areas,” says Jamie Hiber, interim executive director of the Heritage Museum of Orange County. Some O.C. cities, including Orange and Yorba Linda, had been essentially dry towns from the day they first incorporated. There were thriving religious communities, and Huntington Beach and Anaheim had a rising population of Ku Klux Klan members who promoted Prohibition.
“In the late 1800s, there was Glass Eyed Molly. She had a hotel on Second Street and that was located in Santa Ana,” Hiber says. “Her real name was Mary, and (she and) her partner, Bill, were arrested for having a house of ill repute and serving liquor without a license. Orange and Santa Ana border each other, so I always thought it was interesting that they were such diverse and different types of places but also super close. It wouldn’t take long for these upstanding men who are dry in Orange to hop on over to Santa Ana and visit Glass Eyed Molly.”
A teetotaler, Orange County Sheriff Sam Jernigan’s biggest issue during his two terms, from 1923 to 1930, was centered on liquor. Fines for getting caught breaking the law could vary, depending on the misdeed. Fines for selling liquor during Prohibition started at $500 for the first offense, and six months in county jail for the second, but people did it anyway. Sometimes Jernigan would nab rumrunners during raids, and other times gunfights would erupt between the U.S. Coast Guard and people trying to get away. Criminals often escaped, boats overturned, and liquor bottles fell to the bottom of the ocean.
“One of the reasons Crystal Cove was a popular place to smuggle bootleg liquor was because back in those days, it was literally so far in the middle of nowhere, and it was in such a remote little cove, that they felt it was a good place to bring bootleg liquor ashore,” says Laura Davick, founder emeritus and board member of Crystal Cove Conservancy. Three generations of Davick’s family lived at Crystal Cove from 1937 to 2001. She lived in Cottage No. 2 until 2001, when all Crystal Cove residents were evicted by the state.
“If the rumrunners thought they were going to be caught, they would take all these liquor bottles and they would tie them up in a big canvas sack of sorts, kind of like a laundry bag, and they would very gently drop them overboard because they (knew) they would wash ashore. They did that often if they figured that the Coast Guard was after them.”
Over the years, Davick has amassed a collection of bottles she recovered during her days living at Crystal Cove. At her house in Corona Del Mar, she shows off her favorite: a brown glass bottle in the shape of a guitar and inscribed: “Federal law forbids the sale or reuse of this bottle.”
“Estimates are foggy, but minimum 75 percent of illegal alcohol coming into the country (was) coming from Canada, from the north by boat; or from the Caribbean through Mexico and by boat or over land to Southern California,” says Dylan Almendral, who was the historian archivist at Santa Ana Public Library until COVID-19 dissolved his position. Almendral now works at Blinking Owl Distillery, the first legal distillery of spirits in Orange County. “The Eastern Seaboard harbors were far more well-guarded than the harbors here for sure,” he says. “And we also had the illegal gambling boats off the coast here as well.”
Once the rumrunners made it to shore with their cache, some of the liquor distribution on land took place underground, literally, in tunnels beneath Anaheim, Orange, Santa Ana, Tustin, and Newport Beach. The tunnels were originally built to store and move products between businesses from underground warehouses to the surface.
“It was built into the infrastructure of the center of towns usually, so Orange has a network of tunnels that is still accessible to most businesses. Santa Ana, the same thing, although most of our tunnels have been destroyed or blocked off by the city,” Almendral says.
Illegal alcohol manufacturing operations were raided in residential areas of Costa Mesa, Santa Ana, and Huntington Beach. Hidden stills were dug in backyards, built inside barns, or operated on ranches. Blind pigs, or illegal bars (also known as speakeasies), could be found hidden in homes, businesses, and basements around the county, if you knew someone. Secret passwords weren’t always necessary but you did have to prove that you weren’t a cop. Where you went to buy illegal booze would depend on your race and class.
“Fourth Street has always been the fun section of (Santa Ana),” Almendral says. “So you’re walking down Fourth Street and you want a drink. You would walk into, say, a furniture store, like Horton’s, right off Broadway. And if your contact just happened to be there and was at the front desk or cash register, they would let you in and you could partake, or you could just buy there and leave. Purchasing alcohol and leaving with it was far more common.”
Once alcohol was confiscated by the sheriff, it would be stored in the Old Orange County Courthouse in Downtown Santa Ana until a day was picked for it to be dumped publicly on the grounds of the courthouse. The press would take photos, the public got to see the deputies were doing their jobs, and the act also appeased the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
A rise in gang violence and other crimes, as well as the decrease of legal employment and tax revenues, eventually led to the demise of the so-called “great experiment.” Prohibition ended in 1933 with the passage of the 21st Amendment, leaving it up to each state to decide on its own alcohol laws.
“People will always want what they know they shouldn’t have or what they can’t have,” Almendral says. This rebellious behavior is mirrored in issues such as drug use, illegal gambling, or even going to a bar or salon while those businesses were mandated to close this year.
Photos and stories from the time of Prohibition provide us a lasting look at one tumultuous period of time in Orange County—and might offer some insight into this one.