Finn J.D. John

Offbeat Oregon News

In the pitchy darkness after midnight on a blustery February morning just off the Oregon Coast, the 36-foot powerboat Sea Island was in big trouble.

The Sea Island was a Canadian rumrunner out of Vancouver, B.C. It was February 8, 1932 — Prohibition, as everyone by then knew, was an utter failure, but it still had another year to go before it would be officially repealed. Until it was, there was still big money to be made running boats and ships like the Sea Island down from Vancouver to meet up with waiting trucks at remote locations on the West Coast of the U.S., smuggling in tons and tons of bonded Canadian liquor.

One such remote location was Whale Cove, a mile or so north of Depoe Bay — which is where the crew of the Sea Island now found themselves. And they were in some trouble. The engine had started missing badly just at the moment it was most needed. It was now firing on only one cylinder, and barely making any power, as the crew struggled to guide their boat into the mouth of the cove.

Now, Whale Cove was almost everything a crew of smugglers might want in a rendezvous spot — remote, with no houses or settlements nearby, partly protected from the open sea. The only problem was, it was so dangerous as to be almost unnavigable. In particular, there was a big rocky reef jutting out of the middle of the entrance to the little bay, and that reef took some very fancy navigating to stay clear of.

Bringing the Sea Island into Whale Cove in broad daylight with full power would have been a real test of the skipper’s skills — doing it in the middle of a moonless night with an almost-dead engine was a virtual impossibility.

The Canadians did their best, but it wasn’t enough, and a big breaker soon picked the Sea Island up and dashed it against the rock. Then another one repeated the performance.

Now here’s where the story gets muddled. The Sea Island’s crew later testified that, working from the theory that maybe the engine was out of fuel, one of them grabbed a gasoline can and started pouring fuel into the boat’s main tank ... forgetting all about the cigarette dangling from his lips. The fumes ignited, the gasoline can dropped and spilled, and suddenly the Sea Island was also on fire.

Most likely, though, they were lying about that, trying to explain how their boat ended up half burned up on the beach. It seems far more likely that the fire wasn’t set until after they’d beached and safely unloaded the boat — but I’m getting ahead of myself.

At that point, fire or no fire, the crew — William Kerr, Charles Ryall and Arthur Babcock — gave up on the situation as hopeless, and with water pouring into the hold, drove for the beach as fast as their failing power plant would push them.

Then the crew got busy unloading the 400 cases of liquor and 900 gallons of straight tanker-truck alcohol (190 proof, in 15-gallon cans) that they had stashed in the hold.

Now, although they later tried to tell investigators that the Sea Island had “drifted into” the cove after the engine died, Whale Cove had been the rumrunners’ destination. There would have been trucks waiting there for the booze. Apparently, though, the local trucking crew had spooked and bowed out. So the enterprising fellows dug a great hole in the sand, loaded the cargo into it, and buried it.

(It’s actually possible, if not likely, that there were no trucks, and this was their usual system for the Whale Cove smuggling run. Whale Cove is right between Depoe Bay and Lincoln City, so there was a real risk of someone seeing and reporting a truck running around the area in the middle of the night. Perhaps their system was to bury the product in the sand, and the local associates would come and dig it up and haul it out one carload at a time. If so, that would explain them having just happened to have enough shovels handy in the boat to bury 400 cases of liquor and 60 kegs of Everclear in an hour or two.)

Then they attempted to light the boat back on fire again.

In this, they were only partly successful. After all, it was early February on the Oregon Coast... getting anything to burn was a tall order. But they didn’t stick around to make sure it worked. Two members of their local loading crew were there with a stolen car, and the five of them now piled into this and made themselves scarce. Their chances of making it back to Canada, already slim, were getting slimmer by the minute. There was a good 400 miles of twisting two-lane roads between them and the border.

Roughly 365 of those miles were still untraveled when disaster struck again. The driver of the stolen car got a little too eager, or perhaps he’d tipped a glass or two of the Sea Island’s cargo before they left the scene of the wreck; in any case, near Hebo he ran off the road and wrecked the car — actually overturned it.

Luckily, nobody was hurt. The five of them made their way to town, where the two locals managed to disappear. The three Canadians, though, were still on the lam and hoping to get home, so they bought tickets on a morning bus bound for Portland.

But by the time they’d gotten there, the wreckage of the Sea Island had been found. The Depoe Bay locals, who found it first, knew exactly what had happened the minute they saw the burned hulk on the beach. Nor did it take a whole lot of imagination to figure out what had happened to the Sea Island’s cargo. Local Depoe Bay-area residents flocked to Whale Cove, shovels in hand.

Meanwhile, Trooper Johnson of the Oregon State Police, responding to investigate the car wreck in Hebo, discovered that the car’s license plates had been switched — and the game was up. The three Canadians had been seen in Hebo as they boarded the bus. A description was promptly wired to Portland, and when the bus arrived at the station there, a delegation of bluecoats was ready and waiting.

Depoe Bay’s “Whiskey Galore” moment was all too brief. The Lincoln County Sheriff’s men were soon on the scene, and the party was mostly over from there. Federal and state Prohibition agents arrived with shovels and spent the better part of a week uncovering the cache — they were delayed by a nasty storm that arrived just after they did. Of course, locals tried to slip onto the scene at night, and despite the feds’ best efforts, some of them succeeded.

The storm had dispersed a lot of the cases and bottles, though, and reburied them hither and yon. Or, if our theory is right, maybe they were left over from previous runs. Either way, after the feds left the beach with most of the booze, there remained several dozen cases of very good liquor buried here and there, and for the next several months the beach at Whale Cove was a very popular recreation spot — visitors wandered around probing the sand with metal rods. They promptly named the rocky reef that had precipitated their good fortune upon them “Bootlegger Rock.”

The three Canadian rumrunners were taken to the county jail in Toledo and locked up to await their trial. But anyone who thought the story was over was in for a surprise. A little over a month after the Sea Island wreck, the boat’s crew members escaped from the county joint in one of the most spectacularly audacious jailbreaks in all of Oregon history.

We’ll talk about that jailbreak next week.

(Sources: Portland Morning Oregonian, 9 Feb–27 Mar 1932)

—Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. For details, see http://finnjohn.com. To contact him or suggest a topic: finn2@offbeatoregon.com or 541-357-2222.

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