Baywalk Empire: The secret Prohibition history of South Jersey


By Don E. Woods | For NJ.com

There is a history, hidden by rising tides and familial secrets, along the Delaware Bayshore — a history of rumrunners, moonshiners and bootleggers during the Prohibition era.
The glamor of Atlantic City during the 1920s attracts more attention but, for the sense of what the 18th Amendment birthed, it would be better to spend time at Laning's Wharf in Fairfield Township where men were paid $15 a night to unload liquor from boats and hide them in the reeds or in Port Norris where a man people called Slick attempted to bribe state police with $70 to forget about the liquor found behind a secret panel in the bedroom above his pool hall.
"We'll take it, we'll take the liquor and we'll take you," a trooper told the man attempting to bribe him, according to a Bridgeton Evening News article from the 1929.
From Bridgeton to the Delaware River, the Cohansey River has always been important to the region. It's helped with the area's industry, agriculture and even helped with the naming of Bridgeton — with the eponymous bridge going over the Cohansey River.
The river was also used during colonial times to bring in contraband, as a waypoint on the Underground Railroad and, even during the modern day, when marijuana was found being smuggled in the 1970s on the river.
"This area has been used for centuries to smuggle things — up through the Cohansey area," said Renee Brecht, Delaware Bay project manager of the American Littoral Society.
Brecht and Flavia Alaya of the Center for Historic American Building Arts have been researching the region's bootlegging past for an eco-tour they are planning for the Aug. 22 Cohansey RiverFest.
They are calling it "Rum River and the Baywalk Empire Bus Tour" and came up with the idea, appropriately enough, over a glass of wine.
The tour will be a marriage of both women's sensibilities — the ecological importance of the Cohansey River and the historical significance of the area. But, while the river made it easier to smuggle in hooch, it also washed away most of the locations associated with the Prohibition history.
"They're virtually gone," Alaya said. "You can only see the scrappiest of remnants of them as the water slaps onto the shore — maybe a board or a roadway that dissolves into the bay. It's amazing how these places disappeared."
They spoke with locals and researched old newspapers, learning about people like Capt. Wyatt Miller, who used two World War I airplane engines on his boat to outrun government agents, or how there were speakeasies dotted across the Delaware Bayshore.
One region of Greenwich Township was known as Caviar until overfishing depleted the sturgeon population, along with the caviar industry that the area flourished with. Caviar was renamed Bayside and, once Prohibition outlawed liquor, a speakeasy opened up right near the town's post office.
When the tide is low, according to Brecht, you can still see the railroad that used to take trains to Vineland.
Across town over at the Greenwich Pier Hotel, it was the last place in Cumberland County you could drink legally.
A speakeasy could also be found during the time on a floating barge in Seabreeze, Fairfield Township. The Seabreeze neighborhood has since been reclaimed by the bay and then finished off by a bulldozer.
Maurice River
In addition to the Cohansey River, the Maurice River has its own of Prohibition rumrunning.
At a shipyard in Leesburg, boats were made for the government to help catch the rumrunners that used the Maurice River for its smuggling operation. That didn't stop the moonshiners and bootleggers from using the river to their advantage.
"You knew who the rumrunners were by how big their boat engines were because they were always trying to outrun the law," said Meghan Wren, executive director of the Bayshore Center at Bivalve.
Ten years ago, the Bayshore Center recorded stories that locals had of rumrunners.
One story Wren recalls is about how a group of rumrunners had to ditch bottles of whiskey in the river and, decades later, dredgers would still be finding the alcohol.
"Whiskey bottles were the most important things. Nobody ever dreamed in those days that the country would go dry — or that people could drink what they do today and call it whiskey," said James McFadden, a Glassboro man, in a Bridgeton Evening News story from 1929. "It's a funny world.''
The Prohibition history of the Maurice River can even be found in names of areas. According to Citizen's United to Protect the Maurice River and Its Tributaries' Maurice River Recollections Project, the Peak of the Moon section of the river come from local moonshiners.
According to local legend and the project's website, rumrunners didn't need any lights as they traversed Peak of the Moon during a full moon — leading to its name.
The Maurice River Recollections Project also alleges that Boudelier Farm was a local source of bootleg whiskey.
According to a Bridgeton Evening News article from 1929, two men who were allegedly selling liquor in Shellpile and Bivalve led police on a two-mile chase down Carmel Road before being arrested and taken to jail in Millville.
Uncovering history
Due to the secrecy of rumrunning, there aren't many records of the era — especially from the rumrunners themselves. Most of what is known can be dismissed as folklore or oral histories that change slightly with each telling.
"When you grow up in places like this you have a real sense of place and the lore that comes with it," Brecht said.
Morality during Prohibition were differing shades of gray but a lot of people in Cumberland County with families involved in that history are still hesitant to go on record, according to Brecht and Alaya.
"There is still a nervousness," Alaya said. "We're almost a 100 years later but there are some people with recollections of the Prohibition era still alive and they're a little hostile talking about it. There's a certain amount of shame with the rumrunning — so you tap an interesting cultural nerve around here by tapping into it."
Brecht and Alaya are bringing that history into the light, however, and hope to share it with anyone who is interested.

The Rum River and the Baywalk Empire Bus Tour is scheduled for the Cohansey RiverFest on Aug. 22 and goes from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Seats must be reserved ahead of time and cost $10, which will go toward renting the bus. For reservations, call 856-825-2174 or 856-369-1300.

Don E. Woods may be reached at dwoods@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on