In the days since the ‘Unconference’ I have been exploring the possible developments of my ideas surrounding transnational alcohol smuggling into the USA during Prohibition. What I have found are a wealth of both primary and secondary sources, convincing me that a project in this area has the potential to be both rewarding and extremely interesting.

My general interest in the topic required refining, and the idea of focusing on a particular cross-border flow seemed to offer the chance to look transnationally, rather than merely incorporating bootlegging into the American national narrative surrounding Prohibition. It will allow me to focus on the reflective nature of these transnational flows, analysing the impacts of US Prohibition on not one but two societies, as well as on the intermediary actors, the bootleggers themselves.

With this in mind I sought to establish where the most statistically significant flows of alcohol were. Inspired by Connor’s story of whisky being hosed across the Detroit River, I focused my attention on the short stretch of border between Lakes Huron and Erie. An article from the Detroit News suggested that some 75% of all liquor supplied to the USA during Prohibition, entered across the Detroit River, St Clair River, and Lake St Clair, a mere 135km stretch.[1] The geography of these waterways, narrow and dotted with inlets and islands, made them a smugglers dream, while the city of Detroit acted as the optimum centre for alcohol distribution to the cities of the Midwest and the East Coast. The context on the Canadian side provided further incentive for the Michigan bootleggers. Huge supplies of whisky were available from government protected distilleries such as Hiram Walker’s, situated directly across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario.

By narrowing my geographical focus, I immediately found myself recognising the value of the transnational approach. Further research has revealed that Canadian laws regarding alcohol offer a fascinating counterpoint to US Prohibition, as Ontario repealed Prohibition in 1923, and most other provinces followed later in the decade. Whether Canadian laws had any major impact on bootlegging activities is a point for further research. Initial exploration in the digitised archives available through the library has revealed a wealth of newspapers and periodicals from the time, confirming that Prohibition and bootlegging were not only major topics of public and academic debate at the time, but have remained so in the decades since.

This week I stumbled across a dissertation entitled Bootlegging and the Borderlands: Canadians, Americans, and the Prohibition-Era Northwest, by S. T. Moore. I have now requested the expanded book version (Bootleggers and Borders: The Paradox of Prohibition on a Canada-U.S. Borderland) on interlibrary loan. Moore argues that Prohibition and its enforcement on the Canada-US border has more to do with social ties than diplomatic relations, and takes a borderland approach in order to highlight the greater importance of north-south relations in North America, than those between east and west. Moore’s focus is on British Columbia, where cross-border connections are particularly close, but as he comments, his study serves as a microcosm of the broader relationship between Canada and the USA.[2] With this in mind, and with an array of primary sources at my fingertips, I will seek to develop a study of how bootlegging in the Detroit River area fits into the Canadian-American border processes of the Prohibition era.


[2] Moore, S. T. Bootlegging and the Borderlands: Canadians, Americans, and the Prohibition-Era Northwest (The College of William and Mary, Virginia, 2000)


Prohibition Bootlegging on the Detroit River