South of Ottawa, amidst the suburban sprawl of new homes near Barrhaven, there is a big box mall, complete with an LCBO outlet for suburbanites. Walk into any LCBO of legal age and you can easily purchase your favourite alcoholic beverage, yet this was not always the case. Between 1916-27 consumption of alcohol in Ontario was illegal, but wineries, breweries and distilleries could remain operating for the “export market”, which was basically rum-running booze over to the thirsty United States. With alcohol banned in Ontario, its manufacture, unless for medicinal purposes, was illegal. That is why some entrepreneurs south of Ottawa created their own secret whiskey distillery, a hidden shack in the woods near a railway line to the United States that produced what was to become a favourite in the Roaring Twenties of New York…a product called “Pokey Moonshine”. It brought notoriety to Ottawa and even a fellow by the name of J.Edgar Hoover, the first Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. This secret, yet notable 1920s Prohibition whiskey shack has long been silent, but its ruins still exist in the woods.
STILL WITH US
The year was 1916 and the Ontario Temperance Act was a law passed that led to the Prohibition of alcohol in Ontario. The sale of alcohol was thus prohibited, but liquor could still be manufactured in the province for export. The United States would follow suit in 1920 with the Volstead Act, or the The National Prohibition Act, which established prohibition in the United States. Liquor was essentially outlawed in both countries in the 1920s so illegal distilleries began to make their own bootleg liquor called “moonshine”, a slang term for high-proof distilled spirits produced illicitly without government authorization under the darkness of night…under the moon, hence the term “moonshine”.
Ottawa was no exception to joining in on the illegal production of liquor. The United States is only an hour south of the city by car, so a group of enterprising individuals set up a famous Prohibition whiskey still in the woods near Manotick that went by the name of “Pokey Moonshine”.
An Ottawa newspaper from 1928 describes a settlement south of the city as “Pokey Moonshine” named after the fact that its residents made “pokey” which was slang for a type of whiskey. Now being enterprising individuals, the Pokey Moonshiners built their secret still in the woods off the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Railway, which ran from Prescott, On on the St.Lawrence river across from Ogdensburg, NY., all the way up to Ottawa. The Pokey Moonshine still was built off the to the side of this railway line which cuts through thousands of acres of untamed forest land.
According to Al Lewis’ great post on Bytown.net , there was a still built off the tracks where the “Pokey Moonshine” was manufactured, bottled and then crated into wooden crates labelled as “tea” to avoid suspicion.
It is unclear what would happen next, whether the moonshiners paid off the train engineer to stop the train on the tracks by the hidden still, or if the train was on a scheduled stop and the crated whiskey was transported to the station and loaded onto the train there, but the whiskey was loaded aboard and made its way down to Prescott piers where it was loaded onto boats and shipped over the river to the United States and into the dry mouths the many Great Gatsbies of the US.
J. EDGAR HOOVER
The United States during Prohibition created The Bureau of Prohibition, a federal law enforcement agency to enforce the National Prohibition Act. When it was first established in 1920, it was a unit of the Bureau of Internal Revenue.
In 1921, J. Edgar Hoover rose in the Bureau of Investigation to deputy head and, in 1924, the Attorney General made him the acting director, overseeing and policing illicit alcohol production and distribution. Hoover’s crack team of investigators, who would later be known as “The Untouchables” included Eliot Ness who headed this elite squad of bootleg busters.
Raids against stills and breweries began immediately, and the Pokey Moonshine operation was most likely known to investigators.
HOOVER COMES TO TOWN
J. Edgar Hoover decided to pay a visit to the Ottawa area in the 1920’s. A cousin of J. Edgar’s, George Hoover, married a young girl from the Osgoode area and the law enforcement head decided it was time to come visit his cousin who happened to be in Pokey Moonshine territory.
A large black car is said to have taken George and his cousin J. Edgar around the area, most likely in search of the famously secret still providing the US with a lot of “tea”.
THE STILL TODAY
With such an illustrious past and notorious history, I wondered if this famous ol’ Prohibition whiskey still existed out in the woods. Could the secret moonshine still be somewhere south of Ottawa waiting to be found?
Using the information found from researching the story, I headed into the general vicinity of where I thought the hidden still may be located. Walking along the long abandoned railway tracks that the whiskey was once transported on, I looked for clues in the area that may reveal some kind of moonshine operation almost a hundred years ago.
In the sweltering heat and along the mosquito ridden path of the old railway a clue would soon be revealed in the form of a rusty metal gate. Overgrown, the gate lead to a pathway into the woods that seemed worthy of further exploration. Following the overgrown path into the woods the ruins of an old log cabin soon became visible.
It’s log walls had crumbled away and now lay rotting, but the crude stone foundation could still be seen as well as various metal vessels and pots that were most likely were used in the distilling process.
Sections of long collapsed tin roofing was strewn around the site that made me suspect that this was indeed the location of the Pokey Moonshine Still.
Taking a moment to reflect on how this parcel of land may have looked during the Prohibition era I could almost hear the sounds of the men and women hard at work making illegal whiskey, bottling and crating it in “tea” crates to the sound of a distant steam whistle from an incoming train bound for Prescott.
There is not much left of the site, but it is truly a unique find worth preserving if it truly is the Pokey site.
THE SECRET REMAINS HIDDEN
Such a unique and influential part of Ottawa history should be preserved in some form, and that is why I will keep its location a secret like it has remained for almost a century. Perhaps I am completely wrong and it is not the old Pokey Moonshine still, but as I have learned through past adventures, trust your gut instincts. The research information combined with the evidence strewn on the forest floor was enough to convince me this was the site of the notorious Prohibition liquor distillery known as the Pokey Moonshine still.
You put your right foot out,
You put your right foot in,
And you shake it all about.
You do the Hokey Pokey,
And you turn it all around,
That’s what it’s all about.
Andrew King, October, 2017
Al Lewis, http://www.bytown.net/hoover.htm