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How a children's radio show kept Seattle drinking during Prohibition Rum Running on Puget Sound

By Adam Harper

It's 1924 and a cold winter night in Seattle. A typical one we equally love and hate: wet, dark, and long. You tune in to your favorite radio show, Aunt Vivian's Bedtime Hour, broadcast out of KFQX which tells children's bedtime stories, exactly what you need on this lonely night. However, you're not a child getting ready for bed. You are a rum runner bringing prohibited liquor ashore, floating anonymously in the Puget Sound, listening for clues.

The host of Aunt Vivian's Bedtime Hour is Elise Olmstead, wife of "King of Puget Sound Bootleggers" Roy Olmstead. Roy and young radio engineer Alfred M. Hubbard installed a 1,000 Watt transmitter in a spare room in Roy's home in the Mount Baker district, a genius and devious tactic to grow Roy's rum running business. Originally the radio station used was in the Smith Tower where inside information was gathered, but we'll get to that a little later. With Elise on the mic, hidden messages were sent through the airwaves to warn run runners of which piers would have staked-out Dry Squads - or federal agents tasked with Prohibition enforcement. The flow of booze remains safe for now.

Photo courtesy of www.theradiohistorian.org

Seattle on the Rise - Early 20th century Seattle had a bit of a personality issue. The Klondike gold rush which ended the 19th century marked Seattle as a national industrial and economic player with more to offer than lumber and shipbuilding. With multiple transcontinental railroads arriving around this time, Seattle's population ballooned and became increasingly diversified. Scandinavians came to support and grow the fishing industry (I'll take an Aquavit neat), Japanese to raise food for markets (saké for two?), and many other nationalities arrived and made Seattle a multicultural city on the rise.

Then came Prohibition - Another group grew in contrast to the progressively more blue-collar, spittin' in a spittoon kind of local: the Presbyterian Church. With 10,000 members, Seattle's First Presbyterian Church was the largest Presbyterian church in the country. The church, with its zealous support of temperance, wielded its power to influence the crusade for prohibition. Ultimately the church and other social leaders led the state of Washington to pass statewide prohibition in 1916 by just 52%, four years before Federal Prohibition. While the statewide ban on alcohol passed, in Seattle a majority of voters voted against it.

An underground economy was born - Roy Olmstead was a cop turned crook. As a promising lieutenant, Roy was fired from the Seattle police force when he was caught bootlegging. Not one to pass on a lucrative opportunity, Roy used his knowledge of police raid tactics and buddy informants to become the outright leader in Puget Sound rum running. After all, Seattle generally didn't want prohibition. It was just too easy for Roy and his operation to pay off whomever they needed with the surplus of money being made from quality Canadian alcohol. Furthermore, Roy forbode the carrying of firearms by his employees, stating he would rather lose a shipment of whiskey than a life.

The Smith Tower connection - The iconic Smith Tower was built in 1914 during the height of temperance fever. It sits in Pioneer Square adjacent to the Seattle Municipal Court House. Lyman Cornelius Smith, the funder and namesake for the Smith Tower, determined this site to be perfect to build his new terra cotta masterpiece as lawyers and judges would flock to fill the offices. Here too is where Elise gathered sensitive information from her friends in the telephone switch board room who could literally tap into any phone call, opening the door for a hidden message radio show.

The Smith Tower Observatory Bar opened to the public in 2016 on the centennial anniversary of the institution of statewide Prohibition. Was it ever a speakeasy? Perhaps. But if you were in the majority of Seattleites who still wanted to drink alcohol but the law said you couldn't, and your legal buddies at the Smith Tower did too, was there a better place to imbibe? Given its offices full of lawyers and lawmakers and its proximity to the Court House, it's possible the Smith Tower Observatory was the very place where Seattle's movers and shakers came to enjoy their favorite beverages. Come raise a toast to the memory of Roy and his cohorts and thank them for helping Seattle get through many long winters.

November 2021


Adam Harper has bartended for seven years in Seattle. As an early recruit into the Smith Tower's Observatory Bar, he has seen a regrowth in the fascination of Seattle history and its adaptation to Prohibition. With history buffs and cocktail enthusiasts flocking to the Smith Tower, Adam has offered knowledge and skill in both. A history lesson with a stiff cocktail. What's better than that?


  

Adam has created a cocktail for the Smith Tower called Terra Cotta Milk Punch that uses coconut-washed Sun Liquor Rum, orgeat Nux Alpina Walnut Liqueur, cardamom and chocolate bitters, and milk or almond milk.

Adam elucidates: "Milk Punches go back hundreds of years and while bartending at a prohibition era bar, I like to bring today's drinkers back in time if possible. Milk punches often incorporate barrel aged spirits like whiskeys or rums, and with the Terra Cotta, paying homage to the exterior of the Smith Tower, we coconut fat washed rum to add some island fun to the fall cocktail. With walnut liquor, house-made orgeat, a mix of bitters, and milk, this is a cocktail that's nutty, smooth, and delicious."

 

www.smithtower.com


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