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Speakeasies and blind-pigs: Gastown's notorious prohibition past

Picture yourself walking stealthily down a Gastown street . Its night time and you move quickly between the shadows, eventually darting into a gloomy alleyway.

Picture yourself walking stealthily down a Gastown street. Its night time and you move quickly between the shadows, eventually darting into a gloomy alleyway. You approach a battered and stained wooden door, give a knock and mutter the password through the narrow metal grille that opens up. The door creaks ajar and you step inside a dark and crowded room.

Thick tobacco smoke clogs the air. Conversations roar on every table. High-stakes card games, fleet-footed dancing and raging jazz music fizz around the room. Men in shirts and ties. Women in sleeveless dresses and heels, dripping in jewellery. Frequent shrieks of laughter pierce the jazz beats. And everywhere you look, people are drinking from cocktail glasses and unlabelled dark brown bottles.

Its well known that speakeasies flourished below the border during the US period of prohibition from 1920 to 1933. Its less well known that we had speakeasies right here in Vancouver, too. In fact, we had them here first. The existence of speakeasies here, of course, coincided with our provinces experiment with liquor prohibition in the years 1917 to 1921.

The term speakeasy has entered common parlance thanks to our friends down south, but was seldom used here in BC. We had our own names: Near-beer bars, blind-pigs and private members clubs.

Before prohibition, Vancouver had been packed with saloons approximately one for every 300 Vancouverites. By todays standards saloons enjoyed little government control. They were open all hours and served up whatever drinks they wanted at whatever price they liked. They were forced en masse to close on September 30, 1917 (the day before prohibition came into effect). The BC Prohibition Act did afford saloons the option to re-open as near-beer bars. These bars were legally allowed to serve liquor at a maximum concentration of 2.5 per cent alcohol-by-volume (ABV). The governments reasoning was that at this diluted level, people would be unable to get drunk no matter how many drinks they put away.

Many near-beer bars had secret rooms out the back or in the basement, where the real liquor did flow akin to our notions of a speakeasy. Records exist of crafty bar owners keeping bootleg beer and whisky in pitchers next to a bath-tub full of water. In a police raid, the owners would dump the liquor into the bath and hence bring the alcohol content below 2.5 per cent, avoiding prosecution once a sample of the bath-water was later tested. Records suggest current day Gastown bars the Cambie (then Carlton Hotel) and the Lamplighter (then Dominion Hotel) both opted to re-open as near-beer bars once prohibition came in. Whether or not either bar ever made use of the bath-tub trick is not known, although it is certain they sold more than just near-beer.

Another variety of speakeasy we had here in Vancouver was the blind-pig. These were run-down, dangerous, illegal drinking dens. Usually operated by organized crime gangs and often selling toxic moonshine made from wood alcohol or industrial alcohol. Gambling was rife in blind-pigs, as was cock-fighting, prostitution and violence. Blind-pigs existed in warehouses, basements, private homes, even on board boats in False Creek or Burrard Inlet. Usually temporary, they moved from place-to-place to evade the authorities. Take a walk down Gastowns Blood Alley today and you can well imagine ducking into a blind-pig.

The citys affluent could afford to visit a private members club. Exploiting a loop-hole in the Prohibition Act that it was never illegal to drink your own liquor in a private dwelling club members were supposed to bring and consume their own liquor. Where patrons were supposed to acquire this liquor was a rather grey area in the law given it was illegal to distribute or sell liquor in BC under prohibition!

In fact, for those that could afford the doctors fees, so-called medicinal liquor was the most straightforward route to legally acquiring liquor. Its unclear how many illnesses were actually cured by the hundreds of thousands of prescriptions for liquor that doctors in BC wrote out during prohibition. But it was not for want of trying! Once you had picked up your prescription for a bottle of scotch or gin at the pharmacy, you could then stroll down to your private members club for the evening and have a jolly enjoyable time. Of course the more popular private members clubs would have also kept their own supply of liquor (out of the gaze of any visiting inspectors needless to say) for any members that didnt pick up their prescription on time.

The Shebeen, a secret whisky bar hiding behind favourite Gastown watering hole the Irish Heather, certainly has the feel of a prohibition-era private members club. Rumour has it the nearby Diamond also has a similar private bar, where bartenders recreate our citys most popular prohibition cocktails. You can round off your prohibition-era bar crawl with a visit to Guilt & Co, hidden underneath Chill Winstons and still housing passages where, according to local legend, bootleggers stored their liquor safe from prying eyes.

Prohibition it doesnt sound so bad after all!

There is also Murder Mystery for French speakers...

Join a French murder mystery game in Gastown when Vancouver en Francais hosts Who Killed Gassy Jack? on May 26. Teams of two to four can win prizes and find the culprit. Tickets are $5 each and are available at