A Wild & Wet Coast:
Rum-Running During Prohibition

A red tapestry.

On view September 9th 2022 – March 31st, 2024

Our feature exhibition explores the experiences and motivations of British Columbians who transported liquor to the United States during prohibition. From 1920 to 1933, hundreds of B.C. residents met American buyers using tugboats, yachts, schooners, skiffs, dories, speedboats and other watercrafts. For the most motivated, profits made from two or three deliveries of champagne, gin, whisky, and other spirits could cover the cost of a building or securing a bigger and faster boat for the next trip.  

Additionally, larger ships called ‘motherships’ were used as floating warehouses because they had the capacity to transport larger shipments and be at sea for up to 15 months. Nicknamed the Queen of Rum Row, Malahat was able to carry up to 50,000 cases of liquor. Though exporting liquor was legal in Canada, tensions brewed between the two countries. Eventual pressure from the United States spurred new laws both countries and in defiance, British Columbian rum-runners advanced their ship designs and privatized their communication methods. Coded and ciphered messages were sent over short-wave radios, between ships at sea and shore stations set up in Vancouver and Victoria. 

Promise of adventure and riches lured many Vancouverites into the by water trade. For 13 years, high profits fuelled the city’s economy and built key landmarks. Many of Canada’s current liquor laws and regulations are still tied to this era and are discussed in the exhibition including, minimum legal drinking age, public drinking and control over alcohol distribution and access.

The conception and development of this exhibition was made possible with special thanks to Rick James, author of Don’t Tell Nobody Nothin’ No How, and to Richard Marcroft, Jim Miles, David Garling, and George Reifel for providing loans, content, and information. 

We are also lucky and thankful to Cloverdale Paint, for sponsoring this exhibition.