Long Island's maritime history goes back about a century to prohibition when Long Islanders defied the nationwide ban on booze by sneaking large quantities of liquor in by boat. Newsday's Steve Langford reports. Credit: Randee Daddona; Photo Credit: Library of Congress; Neville Harvey

Steve Bielenda of Miller Place grew up hearing stories about how the tugboat Lizzie D — which disappeared off the coast of Long Island in 1922 — most likely sunk because it was overloaded with cases of liquor two years after the United States banned the production, sale and purchase of most alcoholic beverages during Prohibition.

"Nobody knows why it sank," said Bielenda, 84, who along with Fred Scopinich Jr., of East Quogue, are playing a special role in keeping alive the history Long Island Prohibition-era local rum runners and gangsters and preserving it for future generations and historians.

One hundred and one years ago, New York put into effect its own version of Prohibition — the Mullan-Gage Act — which authorized local cops to enforce the federal law. Today, Prohibition experts view the law, which President Herbert Hoover called "the noble experiment," as a failed attempt to legislate behavior which actually served to stoke the desire for illegal alcoholic beverages, undermined respect for the law and gave a high octane boost to the country’s legacy of organized crime.

Scopinich, 93, is heir to the old Freeport Point Boatyard which in the 1950s moved to East Quogue and is now known as the Hamptons Shipyard. Founded in the 1930s by Scopinich’s father and a uncle, the business for a while played both ends of the Prohibition game, assisting both rum runners and cops as they engaged in a cat-and-mouse game on the island’s shores, Scopinich said.

The old Freeport Point Boatyard was founded in the 1930s by the Scoponich family and played both ends of the Prohibition game, assisting both rum runners and cops. A restored, original 1930 Rum Runner built by Fred and Mike Scoponich at the Freeport Point Shipyard, runs past the Jones Beach Tower. Credits: Fred Scopinich, Jr.; Newsday photo/Paul J. Bereswill

Bielenda, 84, wasn’t born during Prohibition but over the years gained a reputation as an East End charterboat operator and diver who uncovered artifacts from the Lizzie D.

"We brought up so many bottles, that some of them looked perfect," added Bielenda, who said some bottles had lead or cork seals. Underwater pressure and cork deterioration led to contamination of the booze — mostly scotch, bourbon and rye whiskey — and when some bottles were brought to the surface they shattered from the change in pressure.

Miller Place resident Steve Bielenda, at his home in 2019,...

Miller Place resident Steve Bielenda, at his home in 2019, showing some of the artifacts he has come across during his many years of diving wrecks on Long Island. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

New York City, with an estimated 30,000 speak-easies got plenty of headlines as the federal government tried to enforce Prohibition.

But it was Long Island which played a major role in the bootlegging and smuggling, historians say.

With over 1,600 miles of indented coastline, Long Island had plenty of secret coves, harbors and inlets to which bootleggers could bring in liquor from as far away as the Caribbean and Europe to quench the thirst of a public that wanted liquor.

The view looking east at the barrier beach stretching off...

The view looking east at the barrier beach stretching off into the far distance, as seen from Jones Inlet. Credit: Newsday/Ken Spencer

"Long Island was integral to supplying New York City with alcohol because New York City was America’s largest city and also America’s largest liquor market," said Jonathan Olly, curator at The Long Island Museum in Stony Brook. "And so to get that liquor into New York City required the active participation of Long Islanders, both inland and here on the water."

Prohibition was repealed in 1933 with the adoption of the 21st Amendment and there are relatively few American who are alive today who remember first hand the wild days of Prohibition, which spawned F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and The Roaring Twenties.

Scopinich was not quite a teenager by the time the era came to an end. But relying on his own observations, stories his father told him and company records, he says he has a keen sense of how Prohibition impacted Long Island.

For Long Islanders with a boat of any sort, the economic argument for rum running was a no-brainer.

A Rum Runner ship at night on the high seas. 

A Rum Runner ship at night on the high seas.  Credit: Library of Congress

"In 1920 most of the baymen in Freeport were like clammers, fisherman, and now Prohibition came along and they saw opportunities of having a better boat, bringing in liquor and making a good dollar," Scopinich said.

"I was a Godsend to the fishermen," remembered Scopinich. " Fisherman — I am not going to say where for starving to death in those days — fishing was a very poor way to make a living, they weren’t get much their fish."

Olly, the historian, said Long Islanders had three choices: It was something they wanted to oppose, to ignore or want to participate in.

It's wasn't just Prohibition fishermen had to deal with.

"Once you get into the Great Depression in 1929, that put a lot of fisherman out of work and one of the few ways of making money during that time was to smuggle alcohol," Olly said.

To bring liquor to the American market, rumrunners took advantage of the existing three mile U.S. territorial limit off Long Island and began parking trawlers and other vessels just out of the legal reach of the U.S. Coast Guard. The flotilla of vessels was dubbed "Rum Row," a staging area to which Long Island fishermen and boat owner provided a ready supply of vessels to transport the liquor to shore.

Once the liquor came ashore, trucks were lined up along the old Montauk Highway to make the run westward to New York City and stops along the way, according to historians. Armed men, sometimes cops, would provide security.

There were also drop-off points at Long Island restaurants and roadhouse, notably Claudio’s in Greenport.

The famous seafood eatery founded by a Portuguese seaman, had rowboats pull up under its floor where a secret trap door — still in existence — allowed liquor to be lifted up to serve patrons, the restaurant's website advertises.

A trap door once used by rum runners to transport liquor during Prohibition still remains in place today behind the bar at Claudio's in Greenport. A photo taken outside Claudio’s in 1933 shows several people posing with beer despite the fact that Prohibition was still the law of the land at the time. Credits: Randee Daddona; Courtesy Claudio’s

For a time, the local baymen were able to use World War I surplus 500-horse power airplane engines to power their boats and literally run circles around the Coast Guard, which was restricted by government regulations from having boats with only 250 horsepower engines, Scopinich said. Eventually, the Coast Guard got use of surplus Navy vessels to help out.

The government later extended the territorial waters out to twelve miles but that did little to stop the smuggling New York City and Long Island were voracious markets for alcoholic beverages and with tons of money to be made the rum runners and boatmen were not going to be easily frustrated, periodicals said.

Prohibition was also the one event in American history credited with giving organized crime a big boost. Mobsters like Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello, Meyer Lansky — the names are numerous — were able to expand their criminality to handle to the insatiable need for smuggled booze. Almost overnight, gangsters of all stripes be they members of the nascent Italian Mafia Jewish and Irish gangs, jumped into the business of bootlegging and production of alcoholic beverages, making what was for the time huge amounts money, law enforcement and mob historians said.

Meyer Lansky and Frank Costello Photo credits: Library of Congress

"I think we would not have organized crime today without Prohibition" said author and screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi, whose work includes the classic gangster movies GoodFellas and Casino.

Gangsters like Dutch Schultz ordered boats through a rum running family out of Baldwin, recalled Scopinich. Other crime figures like Charles Higgins, the notorious leader of the Irish mob out of Brooklyn made a habit of hijacking other rum runners to steal their cash while Rudolph Wylks, one of Long Island’s biggest bootleggers from Rockville Center, commissioned the boat Bella Marie to add to his flotilla of rum runners, Scopinich said.

Costello, who would live after Prohibition in a Sands Point home, trucked booze from the North and South Shore landing areas to warehouses and garages in Astoria, Queens.

Mobster Frank Costello pets a horse on the grounds of...

Mobster Frank Costello pets a horse on the grounds of his Sands Point home on May 27, 1950. Credit: Newsday/Edna Murray

Higgins, a prematurely bald World War I Navy veteran, gained a reputation for ruthlessness with the Irish mob in Brooklyn, where cops tried unsuccessfully to pin a number of murder charges on him. Branching out to Long Beach, Higgins worked with local business who helped him run one of the East Coast’s most active rum running schemes. Federal officials said Higgins was the overseer of an operation involving Frank Barberi, the proprietor of the old Long Beach Hotel and some Long Beach cops who protected the smuggling, according to court records and news accounts.

Long Beach earned the reputation for being a smugglers haven and cops — those not on the take — would bust a number of speak-easies and gambling operations. One story from the period related that rum runners would learn that it was OK to bring in their cargo to Long Beach by lights hung in one of the hotel towers, news reports at the time say.

Nassau County detectives and police officers with illegal whiskey confiscated...

Nassau County detectives and police officers with illegal whiskey confiscated in Long Beach in the 1930s. Credit: CITY OF L. BEACH ARCHIVES

While not as widely known as some Prohibition gangster, Rudolph Wylk of Valley Stream was believed to have rivaled the likes of Costello and Higgins with his own extensive rum running business. Wylk gained notoriety in 1922 when he was suspected of taking part in a swindle of the Rockville Centre National Bank, the cash from which reportedly was used to fund bootlegging operations, according to newspaper reports.

As Prohibition continued, Wylk and a team of cohorts put together a business which smuggled liquor from the French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon off Canada, two key sources set up by Costello and others early in Prohibition. The liquor was smuggled into the New York City area and Long Island on vessels where the illegal product was hidden under cargoes of lumber, according to court records.

It was in March 1929, after a year long investigation that federal agents and cops descended on the old Deitz estate on Mill Road in South Hempstead, which Wylk was using to store contraband liquor. Agents seized about $300,000 bottles of liquor at the estate and arrested Wylk and others, charging a total of 14 men in the federal indictment. The charges alleged that Wylk used a number of vessels, including the schooner William E. Litchfield to carry the liquor.

Investigators also said that Wylk used a ship named Mary Mother Elizabeth, said to be in honor of a nun at a local hospital who was a friend, news accounts said, citing federal officials.

To enforce Prohibition, federal officials had an unusual alliance in Prohibition with the local Ku Klux Klan, which supported the government in its war against rum runners, in part because the dry laws comported with the Klan’s anti-immigrant stance, Olly said.

"They were stopping every car that was going either to Southampton or from Southampton and that really angered a lot of people but there wasn’t anything you could do to oppose it," Olly said.

While bootleggers always ran the risk of arrest and prosecution, plying the seas off Rum Row also had special dangers. Some of the baymen boats were flimsy and would be beached during sudden storms. Even more substantial vessels like the W.T. Bell could get into trouble carrying liquor. A masted ship, the W.T. Bell ran aground off Bayville in February 1927.

The crew of the W.T. Bell abandoned ship and curious locals soon discovered that she was laden with a big shipment of whisky which they helped liberate before federal agents arrived to stop the free-for-all, according to news accounts.

"The actual number of rum ships lost at sea during Prohibition, like the number of pirates at sea, will probably never be known," said historian Ellen Nickenzie Lawson, in her book Smugglers, Bootleggers, and Scofflaws."

It was also the case of the Lizzie D, which disappeared in October 1922 after sailing from New York Harbor, ostensibly to tow a barge. According to contemporary news accounts, it had only a day’s supply of food for the crew of about 12 when it went on its fateful journey. It was last reported seen drifting some 50 miles east of Fire Island.

Its fate remained a mystery until 1977, when divers went to an underwater site south the Freeport Inlet and discovered the wreck, along with a bell inscribed with the tug's name. Since then, Bielenda has often gone to the site many times, diving 80 feet down.

"The wreck is very unique," he said. "There is no superstructure on it, it looks just like a hull … You have some beams going across and ribs, some planking so that if you drop inside of it you couldn't get lost."

On one of several dives Bielenda himself pulled up a number of artifacts, including a number of bottles in wooden cases. Some of the bottles were shattered and empty. But others contained bourbon from Kentucky.

"We actually came up with one that really tasted just like bourbon, it tasted really good," Bielenda said, adding that most of the liquor did get contaminated by salt water and "it was ugly tasting."

No human remains of the crew were ever spotted on the dives to the Lizzie D, although Bielenda came up with one poignant artifact: the leather shoes of one of the crew members.

To preserve them, Bielenda treated them with oil. Tattered, open and lace-less, the shoes are mute reminders of the dangers and human tragedy which were as much a part of the story of Prohibition as the flappers, gangsters and The Great Gatsby.

Sip this, watch that

Pour yourself one of these Prohibition-era drinks while enjoying one of these films about the booze-smuggling period.

  • Drink a Gin Rickey while watching The Untouchables (1987) featuring Sean Connery
  • Drink a Sidecar while watching Little Caesar (1930) featuring Edward G. Robinson
  • Drink a White Lady while watching Bugsy Malone (1976) 
  • Drink a Tom Collins while watching The Roaring Twenties (1939) featuring James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart
  • Drink a Mojito while watching Once Upon A Time in America (1984) directed by Sergio Leone featuring Robert DeNiro
  • Drink a Bee's Knees while watching Some Like It Hot (1859) featuring Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemon and Tony Curtis
  • Drink a Mary Pickford​​​​​​ while watching The Public Enemy (1931) featuring James Cagney

Other American films made with Prohibition as a key plot line:

  • Capone (1975) with Ben Gazzara

  • Last Man Standing (1996) with Bruce Willis

  • Lawless (2012) with Shia LaBeouf

  • Road to Perdition (2002) with Tom Hanks

  • City Streets (1931) with Gary Cooper

  • The Great Gatsby (2013) with Leonardo DiCaprio 

  • The Cotton Club (1984) directed by Francis Ford Coppola, starring Richard Gere

  • Izzy and Moe (1984) with Jackie Gleason and Art Carney

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