BLACK DUCK STORY
Eldridge McGinnis design - 1927
Built at Casey's Boatyard New Bedford, Massachusetts..
Over a half a century ago, the rumrunner the Black Duck was a fed-dodging legend. During prohibition, the speedy "rummy" continually out-ran the Coast Guard, much to the delight of drinkers throughout New England. For over a decade, the Black Duck was a constant embarrassment to the authorities and was at the top of the "Coasties" wanted list.
With peace in Europe after World War I, a bizarre chapter in the story of Narragansett Bay began. It was to last 14 years, a period of unparalleled smuggling, piracy, murder, and lawlessness. New words were added to the American vocabulary, such as "hijacking," "speakeasy," "home brew," "rum-running," and "rum row."America's experiment with Prohibition strained the country's moral fiber and consolidated the operations of organized crime.
Initially, the Coast Guard was at a disadvantage to the 75-foot long, armor-plated, and low in profile rumrunners.
Some had three big Liberty engines (World War I surplus) capable of attaining speeds of 40 to 50 miles an hour with 1,000 cases of liquor aboard. The motors could be muffled to a whisper, and devices were carried which emitted oily smoke when the rumrunners were closely pursued. Some had double bottoms and false bulkheads to create secret storage spaces for the pyramid-shaped sacks of liquor. But later, the Coast Guard began to use some of the Navy's destroyers to supplement its small fleet of cutters for opensea patrol and augmented its small craft fleet with captured rumrunners. These, designed to outrun the patrol craft, were among the best chase boats available to the federal agents.
In December 1929, the Black Duck, skippered by Charles Travers, and its crew, finally ran out of luck. A patrol
vessel commanded by Alex Cornell (a nautical version of Eliot Ness) spotted the rumrunner off of Newport, Rhode Island. Attempting to escape, the Duck zigged when it should have zagged and caught Coast Guard gunfire broadside, which killed three crew members. Cornell finally had his boat and 383 cases of contraband liquor as well. Subsequently, the public was enraged by the loss of life among their beloved bootleggers. Anti-Coast Guard riots grew so violent in Boston that the district commander had to be "spirited" out of town to avoid a lynching. In the words of Charles Travers, "everybody knew what we were doing. Hell, we used to moor the Duck in the slip next to the Coast Guard cutters during the day! We weren't
exactly friends, but we all knew each other and the rule of the game were that the Coast Guard had to catch you with the alcohol on your boat."
Ironically, the captured Black Duck was refitted as a Coast Guard patrol vessel. Even worse, it was assigned to Alex Cornell who successfully chased down several rumrunners before prohibition ended in 1933. Occasionally, the legendary smuggler comes alive in the conversations of a few old-timers here at the bar.
Listen to them carefully and then raise a toast to the memory of the Black Duck!.