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A black and white photo of three men in trench coats and fedoras next to big barrels.
Officers after a raid at Detroit distillery in 1931.
AP

Prohibition in Detroit: Mapping the city’s speakeasies and smuggling spots

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Officers after a raid at Detroit distillery in 1931.
| AP

Detroit’s Prohibition-era history is long, varied, and wild.

As a border town with easy access to Canada, the city served as a funnel for illicit booze, and the attendant crime (organized or otherwise) garnered international headlines. One reporter quipped that it was difficult to get a drink in Detroit—because the barman couldn’t hear you over the shouts of the rest of the crowd.

With the 100th anniversary of Prohibition in the United States taking place this year, we wanted to look at the some of the notorious speakeasies and smuggling sites in the Detroit area. Here are seven of those spots.

Note: Locations ordered west to east.

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1. Fighting Island

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Fighting Island, LaSalle
ON N9J, Canada

Ecorse was one of the last holdouts of the old French families in Detroit, sometimes derogatorily called the “Muskrat French.” The larger-than-life rumrunner “Muskrat Laframboise” built himself a smuggling empire of sorts, with a base on Fighting Island and a crew of men to help him bring booze by the boatload across the river.

LaFramboise narrowly avoided countless scrapes, including at least two falls through the river ice, an assassination attempt at his home by rival rumrunners, and a gunshot from a federal Prohibition agent—who was quickly sacked—as he raced across the river in a friend’s boat on Canadian waters. Ecorse’s well-organized smugglers moved booze by boat, car and bike over the ice, and even via airplane; ten Ecorse men were indicted in a wide-reaching 1930 smuggling case.

2. Tommy's Detroit Bar

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624 3rd Ave
Detroit, MI 48226
(313) 965-2269
Visit Website

The legend of the infamous Purple Gang looms large in Detroit folk history. If rumors are to be believed, every bar in Detroit that sports a tunnel (sewage or otherwise), or looks vaguely older than 40 years, once hosted the Purple Gang for wild parties and bootlegging exploits.

The fact of the matter is, the Purple Gang made most of their profits exploiting smaller fish through kidnapping, extortion, and bombing rivals. These Jewish Orthodox gangsters were, in the words of a rival gangster, “a lot of huckster robbers and petty criminals” and “kids who would hide under a bed” if faced with real criminal activity.

But Tommy’s is the real deal. A 2012 Wayne State archaeological dig unearthed hard evidence of a secret mahogany-lined gambling den in the nondescript bar’s basement. Photo evidence further suggests both a secret tunnel from the street and proof that the Purples used the space as a sanctuary and possibly a smuggling holdover, since the river is so close.

3. Venice Club

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11411 Joseph Campau Ave
Hamtramck, MI 48212

The Purples weren’t the only gang in town. Chester “Chet” LaMare’s East Side Gang had its headquarters in the swanky Venice Club on notoriously wild Hamtramck’s main drag. The original footprint of the Venice Café can be discovered by looking at the three-gabled roofline above Fat Salmon and the Euro Mini Mart.  

Hamtramck had the (dis)honor of sending two mayors to prison during Prohibition. One reporter called Joseph Campau Avenue “Hamtramck’s highway of iniquity,” and noted that the Venice in particular had the “reputation of unrestrained debauch that has made it the rendezvous of the largest and merriest of the cosmopolitan throngs that congregate in Hamtramck to forget care in a saturnalia of wine, women, and song.”

A pretty inglorious reputation for what is now a nondescript convenience store. 

Google Street View

4. Greektown

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419 Monroe St
Detroit, MI 48226

During the 1920s and 30s, Monroe Street between Brush and St. Antoine had dozens of Greek coffee shops and restaurants that were more than willing to open the doors to gambling and liquor. Raid after raid couldn’t contain the crime. The current Firebird Tavern once housed a coffee shop that was raided for gambling and liquor at least half a dozen times in the span of five years. 

Rival coffee shop owners and gangsters from other parts of town gunning for trouble made Monroe a dangerous spot throughout Prohibition. Shootouts in the middle of the street were not uncommon. One coffee shop at the corner of Monroe and St. Antoine was destroyed by a 1924 bomb blast that shattered panes of glass for blocks and woke downtown Detroiters from their beds. St. Mary’s church across the street suffered significant damage and the building itself was destroyed. A small parking lot stands in the location once occupied by the bombed building.

Photo by Michelle Gerard

5. Aniwa Club

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7903 E Jefferson Ave
Detroit, MI 48214

Across from the Sunoco on Jefferson and Van Dyke, a white mansion hulks behind a fence as cars zip past, unaware of the house’s history.

For less than two short but raucous years, the Aniwa Club was the place to see and be seen for east side elites and high stakes gamblers. Drawers featuring hidden compartments for booze storage, closets that hid entrances to exclusive gambling parlors, and a tropical-themed jazz orchestra made the Aniwa a bustling speakeasy from 1929-1931. 

The Wertheimer brothers, proprietors of the club, didn’t stick around too long. The building housed restaurants on and off over the next 50 years, but was derelict and in danger of demolition until a recent $22 million redevelopment deal saved the property. If all goes according to plan, six lucky residents will be able to say they live in a former speakeasy. 

6. Fox Creek

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14702 Riverside Blvd
Detroit, MI 48215

By the beginning of the Great Depression, rumrunners were increasingly wily and more than a bit wreckless. Local and federal crackdowns made for desperate measures. 

In the days before Christmas 1931, agents discovered a remarkable scheme. For months, federal and state Prohibition enforcers had been desperately trying to figure out exactly how rumrunners managed to smuggle booze across from Canada, despite stringent patrols by customs agents and border patrol.

Rumrunners cobbled together a motor-driven windlass which was used to drag a torpedo-like container all along the river bed from Canadian Peche Island, just a few thousand feet directly across the river. The ingenious device was designed to drop its load at the first sign of tampering with the chain along the surface.

When agents dragged the chain to its origin at the foot of Alter Road in Detroit, there was no one in residence at the house there—or at any house on the block. 

Smuggling across a frozen Detroit River.
AP

7. Blossom Heath Inn

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24800 Jefferson Ave
St Clair Shores, MI 48080
(586) 445-5350
Visit Website

Blossom Heath started its life in 1911 as the Kramerhof Roadhouse, an inn catering to holiday-makers on East Jefferson just off the interurban railway. In 1920, Al Wertheimer—brother, coincidentally, of Mert Wertheimer, owner of the Aniwa Club—bought the place and renamed it Blossom Heath.

Under Wertheimer, the building sported two lavish Arabian-themed wings and a nonstop party. Once Prohibition ended, the building slipped into decline and nearly rotted away before the village of St. Clair Shores purchased it. Today it serves as one of the area’s best-known banquet halls.

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1. Fighting Island

Fighting Island, LaSalle, ON N9J, Canada

Ecorse was one of the last holdouts of the old French families in Detroit, sometimes derogatorily called the “Muskrat French.” The larger-than-life rumrunner “Muskrat Laframboise” built himself a smuggling empire of sorts, with a base on Fighting Island and a crew of men to help him bring booze by the boatload across the river.

LaFramboise narrowly avoided countless scrapes, including at least two falls through the river ice, an assassination attempt at his home by rival rumrunners, and a gunshot from a federal Prohibition agent—who was quickly sacked—as he raced across the river in a friend’s boat on Canadian waters. Ecorse’s well-organized smugglers moved booze by boat, car and bike over the ice, and even via airplane; ten Ecorse men were indicted in a wide-reaching 1930 smuggling case.

Fighting Island, LaSalle
ON N9J, Canada

2. Tommy's Detroit Bar

624 3rd Ave, Detroit, MI 48226

The legend of the infamous Purple Gang looms large in Detroit folk history. If rumors are to be believed, every bar in Detroit that sports a tunnel (sewage or otherwise), or looks vaguely older than 40 years, once hosted the Purple Gang for wild parties and bootlegging exploits.

The fact of the matter is, the Purple Gang made most of their profits exploiting smaller fish through kidnapping, extortion, and bombing rivals. These Jewish Orthodox gangsters were, in the words of a rival gangster, “a lot of huckster robbers and petty criminals” and “kids who would hide under a bed” if faced with real criminal activity.

But Tommy’s is the real deal. A 2012 Wayne State archaeological dig unearthed hard evidence of a secret mahogany-lined gambling den in the nondescript bar’s basement. Photo evidence further suggests both a secret tunnel from the street and proof that the Purples used the space as a sanctuary and possibly a smuggling holdover, since the river is so close.

624 3rd Ave
Detroit, MI 48226

3. Venice Club

11411 Joseph Campau Ave, Hamtramck, MI 48212
Google Street View

The Purples weren’t the only gang in town. Chester “Chet” LaMare’s East Side Gang had its headquarters in the swanky Venice Club on notoriously wild Hamtramck’s main drag. The original footprint of the Venice Café can be discovered by looking at the three-gabled roofline above Fat Salmon and the Euro Mini Mart.  

Hamtramck had the (dis)honor of sending two mayors to prison during Prohibition. One reporter called Joseph Campau Avenue “Hamtramck’s highway of iniquity,” and noted that the Venice in particular had the “reputation of unrestrained debauch that has made it the rendezvous of the largest and merriest of the cosmopolitan throngs that congregate in Hamtramck to forget care in a saturnalia of wine, women, and song.”

A pretty inglorious reputation for what is now a nondescript convenience store. 

11411 Joseph Campau Ave
Hamtramck, MI 48212

4. Greektown

419 Monroe St, Detroit, MI 48226
Photo by Michelle Gerard

During the 1920s and 30s, Monroe Street between Brush and St. Antoine had dozens of Greek coffee shops and restaurants that were more than willing to open the doors to gambling and liquor. Raid after raid couldn’t contain the crime. The current Firebird Tavern once housed a coffee shop that was raided for gambling and liquor at least half a dozen times in the span of five years. 

Rival coffee shop owners and gangsters from other parts of town gunning for trouble made Monroe a dangerous spot throughout Prohibition. Shootouts in the middle of the street were not uncommon. One coffee shop at the corner of Monroe and St. Antoine was destroyed by a 1924 bomb blast that shattered panes of glass for blocks and woke downtown Detroiters from their beds. St. Mary’s church across the street suffered significant damage and the building itself was destroyed. A small parking lot stands in the location once occupied by the bombed building.

419 Monroe St
Detroit, MI 48226

5. Aniwa Club

7903 E Jefferson Ave, Detroit, MI 48214

Across from the Sunoco on Jefferson and Van Dyke, a white mansion hulks behind a fence as cars zip past, unaware of the house’s history.

For less than two short but raucous years, the Aniwa Club was the place to see and be seen for east side elites and high stakes gamblers. Drawers featuring hidden compartments for booze storage, closets that hid entrances to exclusive gambling parlors, and a tropical-themed jazz orchestra made the Aniwa a bustling speakeasy from 1929-1931. 

The Wertheimer brothers, proprietors of the club, didn’t stick around too long. The building housed restaurants on and off over the next 50 years, but was derelict and in danger of demolition until a recent $22 million redevelopment deal saved the property. If all goes according to plan, six lucky residents will be able to say they live in a former speakeasy. 

7903 E Jefferson Ave
Detroit, MI 48214

6. Fox Creek

14702 Riverside Blvd, Detroit, MI 48215
Smuggling across a frozen Detroit River.
AP

By the beginning of the Great Depression, rumrunners were increasingly wily and more than a bit wreckless. Local and federal crackdowns made for desperate measures. 

In the days before Christmas 1931, agents discovered a remarkable scheme. For months, federal and state Prohibition enforcers had been desperately trying to figure out exactly how rumrunners managed to smuggle booze across from Canada, despite stringent patrols by customs agents and border patrol.

Rumrunners cobbled together a motor-driven windlass which was used to drag a torpedo-like container all along the river bed from Canadian Peche Island, just a few thousand feet directly across the river. The ingenious device was designed to drop its load at the first sign of tampering with the chain along the surface.

When agents dragged the chain to its origin at the foot of Alter Road in Detroit, there was no one in residence at the house there—or at any house on the block. 

14702 Riverside Blvd
Detroit, MI 48215

7. Blossom Heath Inn

24800 Jefferson Ave, St Clair Shores, MI 48080

Blossom Heath started its life in 1911 as the Kramerhof Roadhouse, an inn catering to holiday-makers on East Jefferson just off the interurban railway. In 1920, Al Wertheimer—brother, coincidentally, of Mert Wertheimer, owner of the Aniwa Club—bought the place and renamed it Blossom Heath.

Under Wertheimer, the building sported two lavish Arabian-themed wings and a nonstop party. Once Prohibition ended, the building slipped into decline and nearly rotted away before the village of St. Clair Shores purchased it. Today it serves as one of the area’s best-known banquet halls.

24800 Jefferson Ave
St Clair Shores, MI 48080