In the shadow of national sesquicentennial celebrations, commemorating the centennial of the Prohibition Act going into effect in British Columbia has been largely overlooked.
At the start of the 20th century, Fernie was a significant regional industrial, commercial, and government centre. 11 bars within 10 blocks downtown illustrate the level of commercial activity. Numerous wholesale liquor businesses boasted stock of the finest wines and liquors west of Winnipeg and The Ft Steele Fernie Brewery produced a well-loved Pilsner beer. Shipments of liquor reached as far as Washington and Saskatchewan on the busy coal trains. Fernie was one of three mining communities known for "working hard, playing hard" that voted 'wet' against the overwhelming 'dry' vote.
The effects of the Prohibition Act were felt immediately when it went into effect on October 1, 1917. The Fernie Free Press of May 12, 1917 in an article titled "The Future of Hotels," noted: "The hotel business is passing through a trying period. One of its main sources of revenue has been legislated out of existence throughout two-thirds of North America." By January 1918, the Hotel Northern's ad ceased mentioning liquor, and "Café & Special Rates" were promoted. While "near-beer" could be sold in hotel bars, the hard stuff could not and the trade went underground.
In Fernie, three entrepreneurs seized the opportunity and became rival bootlegging kingpins, their fortunes only increasing after BC became one of the first provinces to repeal the legislation in 1921. Emilio Picariello, Jack Wilson, and Mark Rogers all had business interests—including legitimate export and import companies—in Fernie that would provide a front for their illicit rum running enterprises.
The citizens of B.C.'s Elk Valley and Alberta's Crowsnest Pass largely turned a blind eye to regular shipments of liquor passing along the mountain back roads. APP Constable Stephen Lawson, on the other hand, was zealous in enforcing Alberta's Prohibition Act, which lead to his dramatic and untimely death on September 21, 1922. Lawson initiated a sting operation to ensnare Picariello during a regular liquor shipment from Fernie to Blairmore, Alberta. His plans were scuttled, and on a signal from his father, Pic's 16-year old son and the driver of the liquor-laden car turned quickly back into B.C. The pursuing officer shot the youngster in the hand in an attempt to get him to stop. In a scuffle between Pic and Lawson later that evening, Lawson was shot dead. Picariello and his assistant, 22-year-old Florence Lassandro, were found guilty of murder and hanged. The trial was covered across Canada, bringing the drama associated with the likes of Al Capone to the Provinces.
Fernie's bootlegging past is one of the fascinating stories being highlighted this summer in the Fernie Museum's popular walking tours on Saturdays and Sundays from July 2 to August 27.
Check the Fernie Museum's website, ferniemuseum.com, for times and additional details of the Rum Running and Whiskey Six tours.