ARTICLE. Half Moon Bay History Association’s ~ Coastside Chronicles .
“Princeton-by-the-Sea: The Rumrunner Years” by Marc Strohlein.
Walking through Princeton today, it’s hard to visualize a scene of illicit liquor smuggling, speakeasies, and bordellos, but from the early 1920s till 1933, the town was a hotbed of rumrunning and unlawful nightlife.
Princeton-by-the-Sea’s heyday as an up-and-coming beach community was scuppered by the demise of the Ocean Shore Railroad in 1920, as we described in our last issue. Yet like the Phoenix rising from the ashes, Princeton entered a new era, brought about by Prohibition. It became a major center for bootlegging and was called rumrunner’s paradise.
The 18th Amendment, known as the Volstead Act, banned “the manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors.” From 1920 to 1933, the amendment marked the end of legal alcohol sales, but at the same time, it opened new opportunities for Coastside residents—at least for those willing to break the law.
The San Mateo coast from Pigeon Point to Montara was the perfect locale for smuggling with its craggy shorelines and coves to hide activity. Local fishermen were seeking new ways to make money by bringing booze ashore from Canadian ships, such as the schooner Malahat, anchored offshore on “rum row.”
In short order, fishing boats were delivering thousands of dollars’ worth of illegal liquor, much of it destined for speakeasies in San Francisco. One El Granada fisherman recalled his runs to a small freighter where he could order any liquor he wanted and be back to the harbor in three hours. Coastside youths were paid $100 dollars to unload boats and load bootleg liquor onto trucks destined for San Francisco.
The Bureau of Internal Revenue was responsible for enforcement, with 3,000 agents nationwide known as “pro-his.” In California, local police were responsible for enforcement, but most were understaffed and ill-equipped to deal with the rumrunners. Treasury agents staked out the beaches and coves as well as the harbor, but smuggling operations continued to boom. It’s interesting to note that the current site of the Half Moon Bay Yacht Club was a Coast Guard station with two cutters used to chase rumrunners’ boats and ships.
Often the fast boats of the rumrunners, with local pilots who intimately knew the coastal waters, evaded and outran the Coast Guard ships. The usual imagery surrounding bootlegging involved cars with hot-rodded engines, but for the San Mateo coast it was boats with souped-up engines. Yet sometimes rumrunners were unable to escape pursuit. Locals reported finding bottles of liquor washed up on shore after having been dumped overboard by rumrunners being pursued by the Coast Guard. One bootlegger said that in a close chase with the Coast Guard, “we’d rather throw the load overboard rather than lose the boat.”
In the middle of all this was Giovanni “Johnny” Patroni, the padrone or “Boss” of Princeton. Born in Genoa, Italy in 1878, Patroni landed in Princeton in 1903 after learning the hotel business in San Francisco.
He built the Patroni House in 1911 (near the site of the present-day Half Moon Bay Brewing Company) which became a popular destination for tourists on the Ocean Shore railroad until it ceased operation.
Four years later Patroni built a 500-foot pier adjacent to the hotel for guests to use for fishing and access to launches and rowboats. In 1921, bootlegger Thomas Murphy approached Patroni about using his wharf at Princeton for rumrunners to offload booze brought in from ships on rum row. Patroni agreed and was soon in the bootlegging business.
Patroni’s bootlegging operation got off to a rocky start when a tip led prohibition officers to his hotel, where they confiscated a $60,000 delivery of whiskey and arrested him. He received immunity by fingering Murphy, who confessed to being part of a major bootlegging ring, leaving Patroni to resume business.
Patroni quickly learned that to be successful he had to grease some palms. Soon he was offering discounts at his restaurant along with overnight accommodations to courthouse employees and law enforcement agents who would warn of impending raids.
Amazingly, it’s reported that between the “special guests” and regular customers there could be as many as 500 people on the streets of Princeton at night—quite the Roaring Twenties scene!
Meanwhile the nearby Princeton Hotel used its past as a resort hotel to cover for its bordello and liquor distribution activities. Originally built by Frank Brophy in 1908, it fell victim to the loss of the railroad but found new life during prohibition. It was raided numerous times by Federal Agents and shut down in 1921 in violation of the Red Light Abatement Act by San Mateo County District Attorney Frank Swart as part of his peninsula-wide crackdown on prostitution. Like other Coastside speakeasies, it was soon back in business.
Prohibition ended on December 5, 1933, bringing an end to the free-wheeling rumrunner days in Princeton.
Ironically, while most of the nation was celebrating the end of Prohibition, at least one bootlegger called it the “greatest law that ever was,” bemoaning the loss of income as his smuggling came to an abrupt end.
HMB History Association’s Coastside Chronicles ~ Frank P. Brophy and the Princeton-by-the-Sea Beach Resort
“Frank P. Brophy and the Princeton-by-the-Sea Beach Resort,” part 1 of the Princeton story, appeared in the Summer edition of Coastside Chronicles. To read it, visit halfmoonbayhistory.org