During Prohibition, hopeful citizens moved fermented liquids through seaside ports, underground tunnels, and back rooms into the basements of bars and households nationwide—and a piece of that boozy era could be yours for a few million.
Whiskey Island, which was once a thoroughfare for illegally transporting alcohol to the U.S., is now on the market for $3 million.
Nestled in the St. Lawrence River’s Thousand Islands archipelago, on the U.S./Canadian border, the 3.1-acre Whiskey Island comes complete with an eight-bedroom lodge.
The contemporary oasis was the ideal location for smugglers to drop and load booze that would end up supplying thousands of speakeasies across New York and the thirsty country.
As soon as the 18th Amendment made the U.S. a dry country (in theory) in 1920, brilliant minds across the country began devising plans to undermine the government.
They took to the high waters of the North and the South to restore order to America’s real favorite pastime.
Many hooch smugglers staked their claim in the Pacific Northwest and the Gulf of Mexico, while others conquered the waters surrounding Manhattan.
But for those working in upstate New York, Whiskey Island became a prime point to hide their cargo and make a quick escape without losing their investment.
Not only do shoals—submerged sandbanks in shallow water—surround Whiskey Island, other islands nearby acted as guard posts.
These gave rumrunners a heads-up against law enforcement, a way to hide their stash, and many different spots from which to track their shipments.
“There’s an island just north of Whiskey called Watch Island,” Phil Randazzo, who purchased the island in 1994, told The Daily Beast. “That used to be a lookout spot where they could signal people when the rumrunners were coming through.”
“Once you got the signal from Watch, you could make the runs into Clayton from Whiskey without being arrested in the channel,” Jeff Garnsey, who is a seventh-generation resident of Clayton and operates Classic Island Cruises, told The Daily Beast.
Garnsey has his own personal connection to Prohibition-era smuggling.
“My grandfather and uncle were both notorious during the Prohibition,” Garnsey said. “They could navigate the water in ways someone from the city couldn’t even imagine, so they were very active and very successful for the majority of Prohibition.”
Garnsey’s forebears devised clever methods to avoid being caught by watchful eyes on nearby islands.
“They pulled all the standard tricks, like having two different colors on the boat—a white port side and a dark starboard side,” Garnsey revealed. “The folks in the port observing boats going back and forth would see two different colored boats as they passed.”
As extra protection, Garnsey’s grandfather and uncle “would also keep sugar strapped to the cases”—as did all smart rumrunners.
“If they were being chased, rumrunners would dodge around Whiskey Island and drop the cases of whiskey overboard so they wouldn’t get caught with them,” Ranpazzo explained.
“Since they were so heavy with sugar, they would sink to the bottom. Then, an hour or two later, the sugar would dissolve and the cases would float back up to the top. They’d come back around and pick them up.”
The Garnsey family deliveries were mostly local and usually contained to “people that you knew—the doctors and attorneys and people of prominence in the area that you and your family knew,” Garnsey said.
Still, an exception was made for celebrity guests.
Once, Garnsey’s grandfather delivered a case of Canadian whiskey to Bing Crosby. He was visiting composer Irving Berlin, who had a home on Millionaire’s Row between Clayton and Alexandria Bay.
For years, this part of upstate New York had been luring visitors of all kind.
“We had big hotels during the Gilded Age, which began in 1872 when President Grant came up here,” said Garnsey. “People expected to play and vacation like it was a resort and often referred to the area as the ‘French Riviera of the North.’”
The home on Whiskey Island was built during that era, decades before the underground booze trade had even started. A local family with the surname Leavitt built in 1875 when it acquired Whiskey Island.
It was then passed down from generation to generation before the family’s last owner, Jenny Boyer, sold it to Randazzo. The property was eventually turned into a lodge and will remain available for rental until its sale.
While Whiskey Island and its surroundings is no longer referred to as the French Riviera of the North, the area has remained a hot spot for Prohibition enthusiasts, according to Randazzo.
“People come out all the time to dive the waters,” he said. They hope to find artifacts or even an entire missing crate, though nothing major has turned up so far.
“It was so long ago and it’s probably covered up or encrusted now. You wouldn’t even be able to distinguish anything from the rocks at the bottom.” No matter: Whiskey Island’s alcohol-sodden, colorful history remains as resonant as it ever was.