BRITISH BIMINI AND AMERICAN PROHIBITION
1920 - 1933
With the decline in shipwrecking opportunities and the failure of the sponge industry in Bimini the island was destitute by the early 1900s. World War One (1914-1918) saw several of Bimini's young men leave the island to join the British Army. Life was tough. Poverty was everywhere. Only subsistence farming and fishing kept the islanders alive.
However, in the United States, only 50 miles west of Bimini the American government was about to come to the island's rescue, but the rescue was not intended. For several years there was agitation in America by many groups to outlaw the manufacture, sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages. In 1919 the US Congress passed the Volstead Act which made America "dry". The Act, though put into law, was not widely supported. Americans by the milllions still wanted their liquor. And where there is a market to buy there is always someone who is willing to sell.
The British Bahamas did not outlaw the sale of liquor. Consequently, Americans could travel to The Bahamas to drink or alcohol could be smuggled into the united States from The Bahamas. Bimini was the closest island to the American mainland and it quickly became a major smuggling port. Bimini boomed as smuggler's money was readily made and spent on the island. Bimini was "in the money". The 600 or so Biminites saw their population boom also as American bootleggers settled in Bimini.
The liquor came from Nassau, along with Bahamian liquor merchants who would come to Bimini for a piece of the action. Schooners would anchor between Bimini and Cat Cay and off load their products to smaller go-fast boats for smuggling into the USA. American federal agents also came to see who was doing what in Bimini. And America's most famous gangster, Al Capone, also came to do business with Bahamian liquor merchants..
A young pilot in Miami, A B "Pappy" Chalk started an airline with daily flights to Bimini. The histroic airline would continue to fly to Bimini until 2005. PanAm, Aero-Marine and other airlines would also fly into Bimini.
Another Miami financier, Thomas Peters, owner of the Royal Palm Hotel in that city, came to Bimini and began construction on a massive three story hotel and casino. The British government in Nassau also constructed a new government building, which today is the museum, and a new residence was built for the Commissioner of Bimini and the island's radio-telephone-telegraph station was upgraded.
BIMINI BAY ROD AND GUN CLUB
Eddie Cantor sang this song promoting the hotel.
Beginning construction in 1920 a three story hotel was soon built on North Bimini's southern tip by Thomas Peters. He had made a fortune in commercial farming in Florida and was known as the "Tomato King". He also owned the Royal Palm Hotel in Miami. Peters believed that if he could build an exclusive club-hotel on Bimini he would attract the rich and famous of the era. His hotel was built, but the tourists never came despite a grand opening that featured a grand banquet, a live orchestra, nobility and the movers and shakers of Bahamian and south Florida's social elite. The hotel had no way of getting enough people to it from the USA. Air service was in its infancy and the charter boat that was used to bring over the guests was not reliable and sea-sickness was common among the guests. Despite the setbacks Peters continued with the hotel project. It was the largest in The Bahamas and third largest in the Caribbean. Its casino was among the first in The Bahamas also. However, the hotel was doomed. In 1926 a massive hurricane, among the worst recorded, destroyed the hotel and blew much of it into the sea. It also killed two Biminites who were seeking shelter inside it. It was abandoned. And Peters was devastated. He eventually sold the property and it came into the hands of Gene Tunney, the famous boxer, and Sir Harold Christie, a Bahamian developer.
The ruins of the hotel can still be seen to this day. An American family bought the property in the late 1940s and converted parts of it into a seasonal home.
Bimini Bay Rod and Gun Club, now the Daniel property on North Bimini
A colour postcard of the great hotel. Today, only the archway remains standing.
The casino of the Bimini Bay Rod and Gun Club
The lobby area of the Bimini Bay Rod and Gun Club
Peters hired a famous Australian swimmer, Percy Cavill, as a swim coach for his guests. Cavill came from a family of professional swimmers and in 1899 he had won a gold medal for his swimming skills. He also received praise for saving the life of a drowning boy. He is credited with inventing the now common swiming stroke "the Australian crawl". Cavill lived on South Bimini in a small cottage built by Corey Ford, the American writer. Cavil would swim each day from South to North Bimini. Sadly, he was given to drink and the ready availability of rum in Bimini during the era of American prohibition took its toll. Cavill later moved to Andros island and died there in the early 1940s.
His home on Bimini, now a ruin, is seen on the South Bimini western shore and its highlighted as a historic site on the Bimini Sands Nature Trail.
The bar tender at the Rod and Gun Club
With the hotel being under utilised by tourists the grounds were used to store liquor which would await smugggling into the United States. Vast quantities were placed on the grounds. Following the great hurricane of 1926 many of the rum running schooners in the waters between Bimini and Cat Cay were destroyed. So, the rum runners built floating warehouses on barges in the Bimini harbour. From 1926 until prohibition's repeal in 1933 Bimini became a very different place.
Liquor being stockpiled at the Bimini Bay Rod and Gun Club for eventual smuggling into the USA during American prohibition 1920-1933.
Bill McCoy "The Real McCoy"
One of the most famous American rum runners was Bill McCoy. He operated out of Bimini until he was eventually caught by the US Coast Guard. McCoy was known for never watering down his liquor products as some rum runners did. McCoy gave you the real thing hence he received the nickname "the Real McCoy" and that phrase has entered the English language lexicon. He worked along with rum runnings "Queen of The Bootleggers" -- Detroit born Gertrude Lythgow. She was a no-nonsense rum runner who amassed a great fortune.
Gertrude Lythgoe of Ohio came to Bimini and was the only woman to be a successful rum runner. She took much abuse from her male counterparts and she became an object of their jealously as she became one of the most successful bootleggers. Dubbed the "Bahama Queen" she eventually earned the respect of her male competitors. After prohibition she moved to Detroit where she died in the late 1960s.
An original oil painting of Gertrude hangs in the Bimini Museum, a gift of the late Julian Brown.
THE GREAT HURRICANE OF 1926
In September 1926 the barometers at weather stations across The Bahamas began to drop quickly. The weather information that was beingf read at the weather offices in Miami also indicated that something was brewing. However, with limited radio technology making communication difficult it was not possible to fully understand what was in fact brewing.
But, on September 18th 1926 a massive hurricane hit Bimini with a power not seen again. A devasating cyclone hit the island with a vengence. Many were killed. Damage was extensive. The Bimini Bay Rod and Gun Club was blown to pieces. Homes were lifted off their foundations and blown into the sea. The storm surge rolled in at over fifteen feet and nearly washed over the island. The storm raged across the Gulf Stream and struck Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach before racing across Florida into Tampa and then into the Gulf of Mexico.