Booze and gambling – The Beach’s sinful past is revealed

I was doing a historical ‘Jane’s Walk’ on May 8 with the collaboration of our Beach Metro News editor, Carole Stimmell, who did a great job telling the history of O’Sullivan’s Tavern on Kingston Road (which dated from the late 1840s), when one of the ladies on the walk asked me a question about alcohol and alcohol establishments in the area.

I replied we had quite a number of them in the area and, as Carole stated, many farmers stopped to quench their thirst at O’Sullivan’s on the way to the St. Lawrence Market. In the old days, the only road across the Don River to the city was along Kingston Road (later Queen Street).

I pointed out that one of the favourite watering holes in the area was run by a lady for many decades in the early 1900s. It was located on the northeast corner of Main and Kingston Road and it had several names  – originally the Boston House, East Toronto Hotel, later the Benlamond, but affectionately known as the Benny.

It is now long gone but in its stead, a hundred feet or so to the east, an establishment known as the Grover rose from the ashes of the Benny  and carried the tradition of hospitality for travellers on Kingston Road.

The East End had its own prohibition and temperance movements but has not always been as puritanical as some residents think. Oh no, dear reader, we did have some illegal goings on in our community – shades of Al Capone.

Yes, dear reader, there were other terrible goings on in our area – one of these shameful acts was bookmaking or illegal gambling. People bet on the horses and other sports games. Remember the old Woodbine racetrack was located on Queen and thousands of gamblers frequented these racing days. Many legal establishments such as grocery stores, barber shops, and cigar shops were fronts for these illegal gambling operations. The Beach was no exception. Queen Street and Kingston Road homes had many visits from the police stationed at No. 10 (Main and Swanwick – now Community Centre 55) and were arrested.

The City of Toronto in its time had more taverns, hotels and unlicensed bars than it knew what to do with. Over a period of time, the city fathers attempted to cut down the number of hotels and taverns.

When the city took over the town of East Toronto in 1909, they also cut down the number of local wet establishments.  The East End boasted the Woodbine Hotel, the Orchard Park, the Norway House and the East Toronto Hotel on Kingston Road. Empringham’s and Noah’s Ark were located at Dawes Road and the Danforth. And there were others. Some of these hotels became temperance hotels or pool rooms, or just went out of business until the city came to its senses and returned to the old ways.

However in the Beach from Woodbine Avenue to Neville Park  ‘beer parlours’ never flourished until the 1970s. However, that didn’t mean that a thirsty person couldn’t get an alcoholic beverage somewhere in the dark shadows.

Gambling and drinking was a way of life for many people in Ontario during the 20s and 30s and the people in the Beach were no exception. They liked these vices. In Ontario, prohibition was passed by the government of the day due to the influence of the temperance movement and religious establishment. However this was the way that the underworld would get rich – illegal booze!

There was also a temperance movement in the United States that introduced prohibition after World War I. You must remember that during this period, many people were involved in selling illegal booze  and distributing it to thirsty customers especially to the US. Speed boats took off in the dead of night from the shoreline of Toronto, filled with illegal cargo bound for New York and a few of these started from Kew Beach and Cherry Beach.

People made fortunes from these illegal ventures even though the police were out on patrol against these entrepreneurs.

During prohibition hundreds of illegal stills were in operation in the City of Toronto, especially in the west end of the city. The police tried their best to crack down on these stills but there were too many and too few police.

In the East End, one of the largest stills in the city was in operation and bringing in large sums of money. Detectives at No. 10 were ever on the prowl for these illegal operations. Some people made the booze in their basements, some in their backyards, and some in their kitchens. The police were on the alert and closed down a lot of them, but others would just spring up. Beachers were a thirsty lot.

In May of 1922, the police at Main and Swanwick were thinking that a large criminal organization was operating in their midst because there was so much illicit alcohol and so many unusual things happening in the area. So Insp. Snider and Sgt. McKay (the equivalent of Division 55’s Sup’t. Fernandez and Insp. Mary Lee) started a large investigation in the area to see if they could find these illegal stills.

They combed the entire East End for a while and their diligence paid off. They noticed vans and trucks coming from a large, supposedly empty, warehouse on Kingston Road. After a few days, they noticed peculiar odours and smoke coming from these supposedly empty warehouses. So they made a plan to raid these places at night. In they went and what they saw astounded them – the largest bootlegging establishment in the city. The police discovered the people operating the stills and promptly arrested them on criminal charges. The spoils included seven large copper stills, five of them in full operation holding 2,000 gallons of ‘mash’. There were 43 fifty-gallon barrels. There were bags of sugar, hops and other miscellaneous stuff. A truck was confiscated along with other supplies; this was a major operation.

It was a very large place. Downstairs in the house, which served as the headquarters, was nearly vacant . A gramophone was playing continually so no noise could be heard. Upstairs the smell was terrible. The police had to hold their noses. There was a large foundry blasting out gas to heat large kettles and pipes. This was a great find.

The police arrested the crooks. They then carried out all of the illegal trappings, pipes, barrels, tanks. It took them quite a while to haul away the evidence against the persons who had the nerve to have the largest operation on Kingston Road right near the Police Station.

The police were congratulated by the city fathers for their exceptional work in closing down this illegal still.

So dear readers, is this the end – oh no, this was just the beginning of the end. Other stills were still in operation; the bookmakers were still at it. The provincial government was fed up with prohibition and the Beachers went back to drinking at the Benny and the old Orchard. So let’s all raise a cup to prohibition.

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