While national prohibition didn’t start until 1920, North Dakota enacted prohibition in the state beginning in 1889. This posed an issue for bar owners and distributors that relied on alcohol to make a living. Many found a way around prohibition by illegally manufacturing and distributing alcohol – but it wasn’t an easy task. Rumors had always circled about how rum runners and bootleggers in Minot would distribute their products without being caught. After the 2011 flood, everyone found out how.
During a recent trip to Minot for Hostfest, I stayed at a friend’s house along the Souris River. During the flood, they were evacuated from their home and had to wait weeks until the water receded to go back to their home and survey the damage. When they finally were able to return, they found their basement and 4 feet of their lower level had been completely under water and everything would need to be gutted and rebuilt from the ground up.
So began the long process of tearing out drywall, electrical wires, and insulation. As they tore out walls in the basement, they came across a small room they had never known existed before. In the room sat a wooden chair and several jars of moonshine.
Soon enough, stories of hidden rooms and secret tunnels were being shared between neighbors in the area. Some people discovered tunnels that ran directly to the river, while others discovered tunnels that ran between houses.
It didn’t take long for people to understand why Minot was called “Little Chicago” during prohibition as more and more of the long since forgotten tunnels and secret rooms were discovered. According to historians, Al Capone ran an elaborate liquor smuggling operation in Minot, not only using these hand dug tunnels to transport booze, but also tunnels built between buildings for heating or deliveries.
If you ask any long-term Minot residents about prohibition, most will have a story to tell, including a person who ran a water well drilling company in the area. He says that during prohibition, an underground pipeline ran from the Ward County Courthouse to the Leland Hotel in Downtown Minot. When the court would prosecute booze runners, the judge would dump the illegal alcohol down the drain at the courthouse, which ended up being collected at the Leland hotel and served to guests there. They say that many contractors would hit the hidden pipeline when doing underground work and continue to patch it – until one day someone figured out it wasn’t a real waterline.
Illegal booze was run all over the state with North Dakotans working together to elude the police and keep the alcohol flowing. Lights were left burning in upstairs rooms of farmhouses along roads to warn smugglers of police officers in the area. This tactic kept the rum flowing in the area and the smugglers out of jail.
Prohibition is over and North Dakotan’s love of alcohol hasn’t gone away. North Dakota is number one in the nation of bars per capita with 9.9 bars per 10,000 people. Cheers!