Santa Barbara’s ‘Noble Experiment’

Prohibition Made Life Dry, Except Three Miles Offshore

<b>RIVER OF LIQUOR:</b> While some dumped alcohol during Prohibition, others sneaked it back in.

NOBLE? As we toast St. Patrick with a flagon or two of suds this week, let us pause to recall those misguided days of Prohibition’s so-called “noble experiment.” Not only did Santa Barbarans largely ignore the 18th Amendment (RIP: 1920-1933) but by all accounts embraced with great relish the twin sins of gambling and boozing.

Barney Brantingham

Although the sale of John Barleycorn and his alcoholic relatives was illegal under federal law, Santa Barbarans needed only to get themselves down to Stearns Wharf and board a water taxi out to the pleasure ship Miss Hollywood. I found no record that lawmen ever interfered with Miss Hollywood or her passengers.

There, residents could engage in games of chance and wet their whistles to their hearts’ content. That was because the brightly lighted Miss Hollywood was anchored just beyond the three-mile limit of law-enforcement jurisdiction, according to Eugene Wheeler’s Shipwrecks, Smugglers and Maritime Mysteries.

Meanwhile, Miss Hollywood was being battered by editorial torpedoes from T.M. Storke’s crusading Santa Barbara Daily News. Storke was ever the strident voice of civic uptight uplift. Finally, Miss Hollywood hoisted anchor and headed south to the Los Angeles area, with its larger population and greater demand from big-city lawbreakers.

After Prohibition ended in 1933, Santa Barbarans hankering for shipboard sin could drive down to the Santa Monica Pier to board Tony Cornero’s notorious gambling ship, SS Rex, which he claimed safely floated 3.1 miles offshore.

But L.A. officials carried on a long battle, claiming that by using nautical measurements from points of land along the coast, the Rex was actually within the three-mile limit. He fought first with the local DA, then California Attorney General Earl Warren, then with Warren when he became governor.

Italian-born Cornero had earned a million dollars by the time he was 30 by rum running. After a jolt in prison for bootlegging, he provisioned the Rex with slots, poker, and craps tables. Alcohol may have been legal by then, but gambling wasn’t.

When a fleet of Warren’s raiders staged a blitz against the Rex, Cornero’s men fended them off with high-pressure fire hoses. Enter the state Supreme Court, which ruled that the Rex was indeed within the three-mile limit. Beaten, Cornero cashed in his chips and headed to Las Vegas. There, in 1955, he died of a heart attack during an all-night dice game. He was $10,000 behind, and his number was up.

Meanwhile, back during Prohibition, Santa Barbara’s coastline was riddled by all kinds of coves and isolated landing spots, scenes of constant attacks by a flotilla of smugglers.

Santa Cruz Island was a favorite place to unload alcohol brought in from Mexico and Canada. Then it could be brought to shore in small boats, an earlier version of the current panga cargos of marijuana.

Sheriff Jim Ross had his hands full. The late local historian Walker A. Tompkins wrote that Ross, although a Scot who liked his wee dram of whiskey, became a teetotaler during Prohibition, as a matter of integrity.

During my police beat days, I came to know Jim Ross’s son Jack, who had become sheriff. Back when he was a deputy, Jack Ross became suspicious of a blue-and-yellow Richfield oil company tanker truck he spotted parked inside a eucalyptus grove on Hollister Avenue near Ellwood Union School, Tompkins wrote in his book It Happened in Old Santa Barbara.

The truck was there by day but missing on certain nights. Richfield officials said they had no trucks in the area.

One day, Ross unscrewed the truck’s gas cap and sniffed. The fumes were alcoholic, not essence of petrochemical.

One night Ross followed the mystery truck to a cove near today’s Sandpiper golf course. As Ross watched, a small boat left a vessel anchored beyond the breakers and headed to shore, loaded with kegs. Men on the beach then emptied the kegs into the truck’s tanks, Tompkins wrote. Ross followed the truck to the Rincon and arrested the driver. A sign painter had been bribed to disguise the truck to look like a legitimate Richfield tanker.

That leak was plugged, but it didn’t stop a river of booze from flowing into Santa Barbara. Speakeasies flourished up and down State Street, and corks popped in Montecito mansions.

GRANADA BOOKS HURTING: Granada Books at 1224 State Street is in danger of closing. It makes a plea for $25,000 in donations to stay open for two more months, $50,000 to keep it alive until the end of summer, and $100,000 to keep the doors open for the rest of the year. The fundraising page is


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