Lakewood's Clifton Lagoons And The Missing Scotch
The perceived evils of alcohol led America to pass the 18th Amendment, commonly known as the Volsted Act, which banned the substance for thirteen years between January 16, 1920 and the Act’s repeal in 1933.
Despite it being illegal, many Americans found ways to either make or import alcoholic beverages. Lakewood residents and Clevelanders were no exception.
One of the main avenues for the illegal bootlegging trade was through the Great Lakes, and Lakewood’s Clifton Lagoons, located at the mouth of the Rocky River and Lake Erie, have a colorful past in this regard.
On June 10, 1921, according to writer Alan May, a Canadian boat, the Tranquillo, was anchored at the base of Clifton Park Hill with between 2000 and 2400 bottles of Johnny DeWar Scotch. Three days later based on a tip, the Lakewood police boarded the suspicious boat. Initially the police found everything in order, but after spotting three shadowy figures lurking nearby, the police put the craft under surveillance. When the figures returned again later and apparent gun shots were fired, a more detailed inspection of the boat revealed the unlawful cargo.
At 4 a.m. that morning, May continues, an unknowing Patrolman Floyd Wright visited the boat in order to relieve officers who had spent the night on surveillance. When he arrived he surprised Detective Lt. Howard Amstus and others who had begun divvying up the cache.
Meanwhile other Lakewood police and members of the fire department had learned of the cache and were making trips to the boat. According to the Cleveland News, “a wild orgy of drunkenness on seized bootleg whiskey, and the theft of dozens of cases of booze by members of the Lakewood Police Dept. has been revealed.”
The News further reported that, “a riot of boozing on the seized Canadian yacht left the wharf littered and the water covered with straw wrappings of the looted bottles of Scotch. Drunken firemen were seen falling into the river and drunken policemen were guzzling the booze and passing out on the boat and in neighboring boat houses. Still, other policemen were seen staggering to their automobiles with armloads of liquor to take home or to share with other officers.”
Lakewood Police Chief Peter Christensen first denied any knowledge of the wrongdoing, but following a Cleveland News front page story on the scandal, a tearful Christensen acknowledged the affair.
May reported that on July 8th, Christensen resigned as Lakewood’s Chief of Police. Others involved in the incident followed with their resignations.
On July 20 warrants were issued for 16 people involved in the incident.
Mayor Louis E. Hill was holding mayor’s court at City Hall when confronted about the scandal by a Cleveland News reporter. Hill stopped the proceedings and exchanged words with the reporter and attempted to bar him from the court. Hill called Law Director Robert Curren to find what legal grounds he had to expel the reporter from the court and was told he had none. An angry Hill was forced to turn over public records pertaining to the situation.
Meanwhile writer May continues, on August 18, 1921 another Canadian vessel, the Venice, was raided by Cleveland Police at Whiskey Island after being sighted going back and forth at dusk waiting for a place to dock once nightfall set.
Police discovered the Venice to be owned by the same man who owned the Tranquillo, one William Curry.
Police suspected other vessels to be involved in the bootlegging operations including a lake freighter which allegedly ran booze between Montreal and Cleveland.
On Jan. 7, 1922 Federal Judge D.C. Westenhaver fined former Police Chief Peter Christensen, Streets Commissioner George Cavelle, former Police Lt. Howard Amstus and former patrolman Floyd Wright between $300 and $500 for transporting and/or possession of liquor. Others received either fines or prison terms. William Curry was held over on charges of violation of the Volsted Act.
Surprisingly, Mayor Louis E. Hill was re-elected by Lakewood voters.
In the late 1930s near the same location which the Tranquillo was raided, one of America’s greatest law enforcement officers and crime fighters, Eliot Ness, bought a Clifton Lagoons boat house. Ness with his “Untouchables,” had made a name for himself in Chicago by thwarting mobster Al Capone’s illegal bootlegging operations. He purchased the boat house, later owned by Vernon Stouffer, owner and founder of Stouffer Foods, after being appointed Cleveland’s Safety Director in 1935.
Ness had difficulty dealing with the pressures as Cleveland’s Director of Public Safety, an unsuccessful run for mayor of Cleveland and personal issues.
Ironically Ness, a man who became nationally famous by enforcing laws prohibiting the consumption of alcohol, later succumbed to an alcoholism induced heart attack himself at age 54.
In 2012, Lakewood’s safety forces are true professionals of the highest integrity. It should be noted that unlike in 1921, today’s police officers are thoroughly screened, tested, and evaluated prior to and during employment. When one considers the police's number of daily interactions with the public, many of which are in unpleasant circumstances, and the number of temptations presented, it is worth noting the absence of improprieties.
Tom George can be reached at TJGeorge1369@msn.com or 440-734-8177.
50+ years proud Lakewood resident BA Journalism, THE Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, general assignment reporter Ohio State Lantern daily newspaper active in civic and community affairs in Lakewood for many years