ATLANTIC CITY — There’s a narrow hallway on the second floor, so tight that your shoulders brush the walls, that leads to a stairway to nowhere in the former Elwood Hotel.
Hotel guests staying in the rooms above would open a trapdoor, climb down the stairs and access the bar through the hallway … but only when the feds raided the main tavern on the first floor.
“Rather than say, ‘OK, you win,’ they were smart,” said Cathy Burke, owner of the Irish Pub in Atlantic City. “They had another operation. You couldn't come in through the front door and act like you're still open. They created a secondary speakeasy backdoor.”
The Irish Pub opened in 1900 as the Elwood and operated through Prohibition. It’s one of the last establishments still standing in Atlantic City that acted as a speakeasy.
Prohibition, enacted Jan. 16, 1920, barred the manufacturing and sale of alcoholic beverages nationwide until it was repealed in 1933.
The new law didn’t exactly stop the flow of liquor. The seas up and down the East Coast became a major highway for foreign ships transporting the illegal drink. Secret clubs, known as speakeasies, popped up in backrooms of businesses and homes, Americans made gin in bathtubs and organized crime took control of the sale of bootleg liquor as the demand for booze became a lucrative business.
Along the shore, Prohibition was loosely enforced. Speakeasies popped up from Florida to New England and beyond, even in the driest of towns.
“It was the end of the sale of alcohol, except for places like this,” Burke said. “Atlantic City was notoriously an open town.”
The main bar in the Irish Pub operated “under the radar,” but there was never a guarantee that it was safe from the authorities.
And when authorities did raid the bar, operations simply moved upstairs — a place the law never thought to look. During raids, law enforcement would take all of the liquor and throw it in the ocean, “and all of the customers would run after them, beat them up and bring all of the alcohol back to the pub,” Burke said.
Customers looking for a drink would enter through the hotel lobby on the second floor and simply pretend they were checking in. They also walked through an alley and entered the back stairway (where the kitchen now stands) to enter the speakeasy.
Today, the second floor is the lobby to the pub’s hotel and looks nearly identical to how it looked in the early 1900s. A portion of the speakeasy bar still stands in the lobby, which also acted as a dance hall.
While many books have been written about Atlantic City, there are no official records of what went down in those popular backrooms where the liquor flowed freely.
“It’s not something somebody ever made a list of,” Burke said. “They’re not going to document their illegal activity.”
Not all operations were hidden
“It was for entertainment,” said Bob Ruffolo, owner of Princeton Antiques Book Shop in Atlantic City and expert on the city's history. “It would have ruined the city to have (Prohibition) in effect. Everybody knew you could come here and drink.”
Some establishments, like the Knife and Fork Inn on Atlantic Avenue, operated as a regular bar.
The business opened in 1912 as a private men’s club before being sold in the mid-1920s and becoming a restaurant.
“During Prohibition they continued to serve liquor,” said Maureen Shay, co-owner of the Knife and Fork. “In here, it wasn't really that you had to come in and know the secret word and be led upstairs. It was pretty well known that you could come and have a drink.”
And while liquor was served openly, Shay said the owners had their own ways of hiding booze.
Lift the seat of a booth, and you’ll find empty storage areas, all numbered, believed to be a secret hiding spot for liquor.
“The story goes that they continued to pretty much openly serve liquor, but not display it,” Shay said. “You could have your cocktails for several years until the federal government finally started cracking down on Atlantic City.”
And like many other establishments in the city, the building was raided and the alcohol was seized. The owners, knowing they couldn’t operate an establishment without liquor, sold the building to another family who then made it into a restaurant sans liquor until the 1950s.
But Atlantic City wasn’t the only seaside town serving up illegal drinks. A few miles south, the basement of a large hotel in a dry town became a popular speakeasy when organized crime bosses wanted to get away from Atlantic City.
“The mafia used to go to the Catskills in New York for their yearly meeting until the government was on their tail,” said Don Woolson, volunteer at the Ocean City Historical Museum. “They decided to come to Ocean City because there was no drinking here, nothing. They secretly came and had meetings in the basement of the Flanders Hotel.”
As Ocean City was, and still is, a dry town, authorities never thought to look for any establishments serving up liquor there.
“But we’re the driest wet town you've ever seen,” Woolson said.
The basement of the Flanders, known as the catacombs, held a speakeasy. Hotel guests would enter through a long tunnel from the beach, change out of their swimsuits and go to the bar.
“When the hotel was really running well in the 1920s and 30s, they wanted the people in their hotel to be able to have a speakeasy,” said Pete Voudouris, director of hotel and banquet operations at the Flanders.
Even though the entrance to the catacombs from the first floor was never hidden, it was disguised as a plain-looking door that guests most likely mistook as a closet or entrance for staff.
Bars and dining areas operated in the catacombs until the 1960s. Today, the expansive seven-room basement is void of any remnants of Prohibition after Hurricane Sandy flooded the space in 2012, destroying the original bars.
Rum runners and the fight to stop them
Another speakeasy that saw the wrath of Sandy but survived with many of its original aspects is a rum runner house tucked away on Massachusetts Avenue in Atlantic City.
“The ships would come over from Ireland or down from Canada (with liquor) and anchor offshore,” said Tom Forkin, who lives in the home. “The clam boats would go out, get the booze and then they would pull in.”
The boats would pull right up to the back doors of the home, unload the liquor and transport it across the floor right to a waiting truck in the garage.
Some liquor, though, never left the premises.
“They were called speakeasies because you really wouldn't talk about it,” Forkin said. “You’d speak easy about it. Don’t tell anybody. Keep it quiet.”
The original bar, dating to 1921, still stands on the first floor where Atlantic City political boss and Prohibition kingpin Enoch "Nucky" Johnson and famous mobster Al Capone sat many a night throwing back booze, Forkin said.
The home still boasts original features like the floors in the upstairs dance hall (now Forkin’s living room), walls, windows, trim, doors and an ice box where the liquor was stored. A small seat still folds down from the wall by the front door where security manned the entrance.
“The guy would sit here, and you would get the secret knock to get inside,” Forkin said. “All they did here was drink, dance and smuggle booze.”
But even though liquor was discretely smuggled in through the back bays of Atlantic City, it didn’t mean it wasn’t being watched.
Large ships, known as mother ships, carting bootleg liquor from foreign ports hovered beyond U.S. waters three nautical miles off the East Coast. By 1922, the Federal Prohibition Commission counted hundreds of mother ships stationed offshore in “Rum Row,” with up to 60 off New Jersey alone, said Bill Theisen, Atlantic-area historian for the U.S. Coast Guard.
At night, speed boats would meet the mother shops and ferry the liquor back to shore. To better intercept the boats, the Coast Guard enforced laws to monitor ships as far as 12 nautical miles out.
By 1923, the Coast Guard realized its current fleet could not prevent all smugglers from coming onshore and requested more than 300 new boats and more than $20 million to better fight the rum runners. About $13 million was funded for the fleet expansion, including the addition of Navy warships, and 6,000 service members were added.
By 1925, the Coast Guard added aircraft to its fleet to interdict smugglers. Two years later, the service’s budget increased to more than $24 million, making it the second largest fleet expansion in Coast Guard history, behind World War II, Theisen said.
“It was the largest law enforcement mission in Coast Guard history,” he said. “We were in the air, on land and sea.”
Prohibition also brought the use of radio direction finders, to determine the coordinates of smugglers’ transmitters on land and sea, and cryptanalysis to break codes used by rum runners to communicate.
“Intelligence gathering became such an important tool in the rum war that the service established the Office of Coast Guard Intelligence in 1924,” said Theisen. “Everyone talks about the Untouchables, like Al Capone, but some of the wildest things happened on the water and have been forgotten.”
And while the Coast Guard has since grown, most of the bars and hidden speakeasies in and around Atlantic City have been torn down or renovated beyond recognition. Only remnants of the Roaring '20s remain.
But the few lucky structures still standing, a century later, survived to tell the story and remain, for the most part, untouched.