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Prohibition’s Hidden Harbor: Rum Running on Long Island

Prohibition's Hidden Harbor: Rum Running on Long Island

The windfall of free whiskey proved irresistible to Bayville and residents, invoking an age-old tradition woven into the fabric of Long Island and maritime lore. For generations, locals held firm to the belief that whatever the sea delivered was theirs for the taking, a sentiment doubly true when it came to contraband cargo like bootlegged liquor.

In 1927, this tradition collided with the perils of Prohibition when a lumber schooner, repurposed as a rum runner named the W. T. Bell met its fate off the shores of Bayville on Nassau County’s North Shore. Laden with a staggering $500,000 worth of illicit Scotch and whiskey, the vessel, rumored to be bound for Glen Cove, ran aground during one of the fiercest winter storms to lash the New York area in decades.

Contraband, mob bosses, and maritime chases

While New York City boasted around 30,000 speakeasies, it was Long Island that emerged as a major hub for bootlegging and smuggling during Prohibition. With its extensive 1,600-mile

coastline, Long Island provided ample opportunities for illicit activities, enabling bootleggers to procure liquor from as far as the Caribbean and Europe to satisfy public demand. Nassau County, with its ocean proximity and numerous secluded coves, became a focal point for rum running from 1920 to 1933, amidst national prohibition, which banned the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages.

Today, remnants of the daring escapade aboard the stranded W.T. Bell linger beneath the waves near Oak Neck Point, where the skeletal remains of the schooner serve as a silent testament to the tumultuous events of that fateful day. As the storm raged and the crew faced impending disaster, a beacon of distress pierced the darkness, drawing the attention of vigilant Bayville residents. Swiftly mobilizing, they launched a daring rescue mission, hauling the stranded sailors to safety. Oddly, the crew melted quietly away into the night without a word. The rescuers must have had a suspicion. By daylight, they knew.

Daylight unveiled the schooner’s secret bounty—hundreds of barrels of bootlegged liquor destined for the awaiting arms of a Glen Cove mob boss. In a frenzy of activity reminiscent of a maritime chase, Bayville’s residents set to work salvaging the valuable contraband, braving frigid waters and treacherous surf to claim their share.

“Some of the kegs floated away, and the Bayville townsfolk chased after them in rowboats, looking somewhat like 20th-century Ahabs rowing after 25-gallon Moby Dicks,” wrote Daniel E. Russell, an acclaimed City Historian and former harbor master of Glen Cove, New York. He captured the scene’s surreal imagery as if he was there. For more of Mr. Russell’s insights into the area’s history, visit

News of the Bell’s clandestine cargo spread like wildfire, attracting the attention of rival bootlegging gangs from Oyster Bay. Despite the chaos, both sides agreed to share the spoils peacefully, avoiding violence. By nightfall, an estimated 125 barrels of contraband Scotch and whiskey had vanished into the night.

But, the law eventually caught wind of the illicit operation. As darkness descended, the tranquility of the shoreline was shattered by the arrival of police, armed with machine guns and intent on restoring order. The day of “rum running” was over, and the W. T. Bell met its fiery demise at the hands of the U.S. Coast Guard. They blew it up.

Yet, the indomitable spirit of those intrepid Bayville citizens lives on, echoing through the Village’s beach parties, bustling bars, and legendary Fourth of July fireworks. Should you find yourself among the fortunate few invited to partake in the revelry, you’ll experience tales of your own to share. Aren’t fireworks illegal? Just hold on to your sparklers.

And as you raise a glass to toast the memory of those daring souls, consider the legacy they’ve left behind—a testament to Long Island’s Rich history of smuggling, intrigue, and the eternal clash between law enforcement and bootleggers. In Nassau County’s colorful tapestry of yesteryear, such tales stand as a reminder of the resilience and resourcefulness of those who dared to defy the law in pursuit of a taste of forbidden freedom.

Because the W. T. Bell could have posed a significant hazard to navigation if she had re-floated during a storm; the hulk was dynamited by the U.S. Coast Guard in March of 1927.

For more information about Prohibition, visit RumRunners Delivered the Good Stuff to American’s Speakeasies


Read Bill Bleyer’s Long Island and the Sea  


For more than five centuries, the waterways surrounding Long Island have profoundly shaped its history. Familiar subjects of lighthouses, shipwrecks, and whaling are found alongside oft-forgotten history, such as Pan-American flying boats landing in Manhasset Bay in the early days of transatlantic flight. From the British blockade and skirmishes during the American Revolution to the sinking of merchant vessels by Germany in World War II, the sea brought wars to these shores. Gold Coast millionaires commuted in high-speed yachts to Manhattan offices as the island’s wealth grew. Historian Bill Bleyer reveals Long Island’s nautical bonds from the Native Americans to current efforts to preserve the region’s maritime heritage.


Visit and learn more about Nassau County’s history of rum running. Share your pics with @VisitNassauCountyLI and be entered to win some Nassau County faves!

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