Father M. J. Whyte was definitely preaching to the choir in Redwood City when he ranted against the evils of alcohol in one of a series of speeches the Roman Catholic priest gave throughout the Bay area as Prohibition approached.
The lecture at the Sequoia Theater pushed the anti-saloon dry position in a town that in 1918 – before Prohibition became law throughout the nation - closed its saloons. The city trustees took the action because, officials said, 25 drunks a month were tossed in the city jail. The jail was nearly empty after the bars were shut down.
Whyte, a priest at St. Martin’s parish in Sunnyvale, was news because he shattered the image of the “dry” Protestant and the “wet” Catholic. Whyte spoke to anti-booze gatherings from Antioch to San Jose, keeping up his attacks on alcohol despite New York anti-saloon leader William Anderson grabbing headlines by claiming Catholic leaders viewed Prohibition as a Protestant “victory” and thus wanted to bring back the saloon.
Why was Redwood City so strongly against “demon rum?” Mary K. Spore-Alhadef studied this aspect in “Saloons, Breweries and Bordellos,” a chapter in the book “Redwood City: A Hometown History.”
She noted that the southern part of San Mateo County was pretty much a male domain during its formative years when young, single men engaged in such physically demanding occupations as the lumber trade. The 1906 earthquake helped change that picture when families fled south from San Francisco and public opinion “began to turn against the saloon.”
In 1908 the Redwood City Council adopted an ordinance regulating the liquor trade. A year later, saloons were banned within 200 feet of a school, meaning at least three of the four saloons on Broadway would have to close. Around this time, the “family men” began forming fraternal organizations that allowed husbands to drink with their friends without rubbing elbows “with the rougher elements” that patronized saloons, Spore-Alhadef wrote. In his history of Redwood City published in 1928, Roy Cloud listed several such groups, among them the Masons, Odd Fellows, Native Sons, Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion. Churches were also becoming more influential.
When Prohibition became the law of the land in 1919, the speakeasy took over where the saloon left off. Soon every city was finding it near impossible to enforce the law that lasted until 1933. La Peninsula, published by the San Mateo County History Association, reported that small fines and jail terms could do little to stem the tide of illegal alcohol. One Redwood City hotel owner, it said, kept selling “bootleg” drinks after three convictions and fines.
Coast was a Walk on the Wild Side
Want to get the feel of the Roaring ‘20s and Prohibition? Then head to the San Mateo County Coast where rumrunners rode pounding waves long before surfers. Tell ‘em “Jim sent me.”
A coastal remnant of the nation’s long dry spell is near Shelter Cove, an isolated enclave that was the site of one of the more unusual chapters of the fight against booze: Prohibition agents blasted shut an abandoned railroad shelter that bootleggers used for a warehouse. Barbara VanderWerf recounted the saga of the tunnel in her book, “Montara Mountain,” in which she reported that rumrunners took over the cove at night and unloaded thousands of bottles of whiskey from Canadian ships. “The next day the whiskey was for sale in San Francisco speakeasies,” VanderWert wrote.
The 354-foot-long tunnel was built by the Ocean Shore Railroad, an ill-fated venture designed to link San Francisco and Santa Cruz via a coastal route. The railroad, which had a slogan of “Reaches the Beaches,” lasted from 1907 to 1920, when autos increasingly lured away passengers.
When plans were made for the present Highway I the railroad decided to hold on to its right to the tunnel, blown entrances and all. Ocean Shore officials claimed it cost nearly a million dollars to build the tunnel through Pedro Point and carve a ledge along Devil’s Slide. Besides the railroad might start up again. The Highway 1 planners would have to meet the railroad’s price or find another route, which they did. That’s the route we drive today.
The San Mateo County coast was a natural for rumrunners. The Coast Guard had a difficult time enforcing the National Prohibition Act, later given teeth by the Volstead Act, which lasted from 1920 to 1933.
Half Moon Bay was an excellent port because of the area’s many landing sites, roads near the ocean and a sparse population.
Most seaborne booze came from Canada with large ships loading up in Vancouver with cargo for markets in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. After delivering the goods, the ships headed back to Canada for another load.
Coast Guard Commander Malcolm Willoughby said one ship was able to stay in the Half Moon Bay area for seven months in 1924. He wrote in “Rum War at Sea” that contact boats sailed from San Francisco at times when “a particular official on duty found it profitable to be unobserving.”
There were clashes between the Coast Guard and smugglers, however. One near Moss Beach led to gunfire in which the Coast Guard sailors opened up with rifles, machine guns and a deck gun. The smugglers still managed to outdistance their pursuers in the dark.
The smuggling operations became very advanced. One at Salada Beach employed a dock that extended 250 feet into the surf and employed a cable line to bring liquor ashore in a breeches buoy.
In addition to the tunnel, the coast has other reminders of the Gatsby age, particularly the Moss Beach Distillery that boasts a fabled flapper ghost. Other spots known for their shady past include the Miramar Beach Restaurant, known as the Miramar Hotel during Prohibition. An imposing private residence in Pacifica, dubbed the “castle” for obvious reasons, was a well-known speakeasy.
It was the rumrunners and their customers ashore who stole the bigger headlines via exciting, colorful stories such as the Coast Guard action noted earlier, but it wasn’t long before people were making their own libations. The San Mateo News-Leader reported that 69 stills, including one that could make 300 gallons of alcohol a day, were raided in the county during the first six years of Prohibition, with most of the action taking place in Colma and Daly City. And there were only 36,000 people in San Mateo County at the time. Guess few were getting carded.
Jim Clifford retired in 2000 after a 40-year career as a news reporter, a span split between United Press International and the Associated Press. He writes the “Rear View Mirror” history column that appears in the San Mateo Daily Journal. He also writes history stories for several magazines, including Climate, The Journal of Local History and La Peninsula.
Clifford, the author of “Philip’s Code: No News is Good News — to a Killer,” is veteran of both the Navy and Air Force. He and his wife, Peggy, met when they were students at San Francisco State. The native San Franciscans moved down the Peninsula to Redwood City where they raised seven children. “Times were good,” Clifford said.