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Rum Runners of the Jersey Shore
During the long era of prohibition, many Americans were not supportive of the Amendment and chose to go outside of the law and continue the illegal consumption of alcoholic beverages. Much ingenuity was displayed to avoid those authorities, that were not already looking the other way. The Lairds Company of New Jersey continued to make Apple Jack convincing the Feds that it was medicine, The Italians opened restaurants in New York and served homemade wine to eager patrons who also developed a taste for Neapolitan fare that is even greater today. Few, however, were as crafty as the locals that lived in the area of northern coastal Monmouth County, New Jersey. The article below is based on historical fact and and also told to me by my father who was born in the Highlands in 1907 and was the young man on the dark hill beneath the lighthouse..
Small Fast Boats on the Dark, Rough Atlantic
Rising 260 feet above sea level in Monmouth County New Jersey, Mt Mitchell is the highest point along the middle Atlantic seaboard. In the shadow of this mountain, and the historic twin lights of the Navesink Lighthouse, lies the small village of the Highlands. It is a town with roots in history dating backing to the 1525 when the area was first viewed by Giovanni de Verrazano. The name Navesink translates from the Native American language as “good fishing place,” which it still is to this very day although the catches of tuna have been replaced with bluefish and the abundant clam population is presently off limits to commercial fishery.
During the era of prohibition the attitude of resistance of New Jerseyans to the law was reflected in the local residents. The population of the Highlands was made up primarily of clam digging and fishing families of very modest means, and many saw an opportunity to take advantage of the topography and the complexity of the Shrewsbury and Navesink rivers to operate an illegal but locally supported rum running business.
Ships with their cargo of Canadian whiskey or Caribbean rum would appear like ghosts at night in “rum row” miles off of Sandy Hook outside New York Harbor. Cloaked in darkness, boat slips well hidden in the network of tributaries and coves bays would suddenly come to life as the local men hurried to get underway, in often brutal conditions, in skiffs to meet the ships and claim their share of the cargo. These Jersey skiffs, which were unique designs made by Highlands boat builders, had the capability to easily outrun the Coast Guard gun boats. In fact the Coast Guard started utilizing the same boats to get up to speed in their pursuit which was looked at as comical to the locals.
Support for a Poor Community
High on the slope of Mt.Mitchell a young man was perched with his eyes scanning the coast looking for any signs of the Coast Guard getting under way from the Fort Monmouth station or heading toward the tip of Sandy Hook. Equipped with a lantern he would quickly warn the bootleggers of any impending Coast Guard intervention. This duty would earn him a little pay which was welcome to help feed his family. Everyone in the Highlands worked regardless of age. Some kids would work after school and in the summer at Fort Hancock. Some would work at the docks and others would sell clams or crabs. Whatever was necessary to earn a wage to help out the family was a priority even if it was illegal.
When the skiffs, loaded down with their illicit cargo reached shore, men responding to a signal light would head out into the early morning darkness, from the comfort of their homes, to claim their share. A case of Canadian whiskey would cost as little as $7.50 and would bring upwards of $550.00 when distributed to an upscale club making the risk of arrest less deterrent.
A few miles away, in several locations along the Jersey shore, clubs served the whiskey and rum and operated with little interference from local authorities. Wreck Pond, named for the shipwrecks of Captains who mistook it for nearby Manasquan Inlet, was near the upscale resort town of Spring Lake. It served, as a seaplane landing place for celebrities and sports figures flying in to spend a night of revelry while consuming pricy cocktails created by the imagination of bartenders working with their limited stock of whiskey and rum kept in burlap bags in secret locations.
Rum running was prevalent all up and down the Jersey Shore but nowhere did it flourish as in the Highlands where the area came to be known as “Bootleggers Paradise.”
Where to Drink (and Eat) Today at the Jersey Shore
- Eat Along the Shore: Your Jersey Shore Culinary Concierge
The Jersey Shore Food Blog