Prohibition-Era “Whisky Special” Train to Washington

glass of whisky
glass of whisky

Continuing the Prohibition theme for this week, here’s an article that we dug up from The Baltimore Sun, printed on November 28th, 1918. Remember that Prohibition started earlier in D.C. with President Wilson signing the Sheppard Act into law, inaugurating the dry years for the District in 1917. It would be enforced as a federal law in January 1920.

There’s a high old time on Pratt street when the Whisky Special leaves!

And it leaves several times every week day laden with spirituous refreshment for the bibulous of Washington, and every time it leaves there is the same scene of excitement, commonplace to the people of the neighborhood, but full of interest to casual visitors in that locality. The long line of cars on the Washington, Baltimore and Annapolis Electric Railway backs down Pratt street to Eutaw, and there is an immediate scramble for them, men and women, mostly negroes, but with a goodly percentage of whites among them, who make a wild dash for the cars, wrestling with their packages and suitcases full of booze, all anxious to get seats and safe places for their precious packages of liquid joy.

It takes but a little while for all the seats to be grabbed. It is everyone for himself, and the strongest wins out. No consideration is shown for the women, black or white, and no consideration is shown by the women for the men. Clothing is disarranged, hats are knocked off and occasionally a bottle is smashed in the struggle, but not often, for bottles are protected even at the cost of bodily injury. They are too precious and bring too good a price in Washington.

Ordinarily these “Whisky Specials,” or “Booze Specials,” as they are called, run on a regular schedule, every two hours from 10 o’clock in the morning until 8 in the evening, and sometimes even later; but, since the Bowie races have been on, they run at any old time the company can find the cars for them. But what of that? The booze carriers sit on the piles of lumber and old bricks like “patience on a monument,” waiting for the train that may come at any moment, moving about occasionally and munching wormy chestnuts and musty peanuts which they buy at prices that must be on a par with what whisky is bringing in Washington.

Occasionally an automobile which failed to get passengers for the racetrack pulls up to the curb and the driver calls out: “Direct to Washington, anywhere you want to go.” The machine fills up with three or four passengers at $5 a throw, and off they go, to come back the following day for another load. Singularly enough the neegroes [sic] were the most numerous patrons of the automobiles yesterday. perhaps it was a case of “easy come, easy go.”

The white men and the white women among the whisky toters are a sorry-looking lot. They seem to have been brutalized. White men are rather numerous in the business, but there are not many white women, for which the Lord may be thanked, and there are not many white boys and girls; they are rare in fact, but the negro boys and girls are numerous.

Of course, Washington, being dry, all the stuff carried on these trains is supposed to be for personal use. But it is hard to imagine any negro or white man, for that matter, being able to consume a dozen bottles of whisky in a day or two and still have such a thirst that he has to come back to Baltimore for another couple of dozen bottles. Some of these whisky toters make a trip a day every day in the week, or nearly every day, yet no one ever hears of any of them being arrested or held up in Washington.

There seems to be no more concealment at that end of the line than there is at this, and it would seem that, if by any possibility, all that stuff should not be for “personal use” but for sale by bootleggers, the police of Washington ought to be able to check up on it. But they seem to accept the statement that that [sic] the whisky is for the toters own use, and they seem to have firm belief in his ability to hold as much as he can tote. But the Baltimore police who work that Pratt and Eutaw streets post have no such faith in any human being’s liquor absorbing capacity. They say the stuff is taken to Washington for sale.

About Tom

Tom founded Ghosts of DC on January 4th, 2012 as a blog to uncover the lost and untold history of Washington, D.C. He has lived in the city for over a decade and loves exploring every corner of the District.

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