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By Tom Marshall
One hundred years ago this month, Prohibition was enacted by the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution, banning the manufacture and sale of all alcoholic beverages.
The effort to outlaw booze backfired big time. People actually drank more after the ban was imposed. It also gave rise to criminal enterprises, including the Mafia.
Thirteen years later, the 21st Amendment to the Constitution ended Prohibition. To make alcohol consumption legal again required the issuance of new liquor licenses. A couple of restaurants in San Clemente received the first two liquor licenses in the entire nation.
According to newspaper clippings at the time, immediately after the 21st Amendment became law, the San Clemente City Council voted unanimously to issue permits to sell light wines and beer to the Aquarium Café (where O.C. Fresca now sits at North Beach) and Travaglini’s Café (on El Camino Real, where South of Nick’s operates today.)
That our little Spanish Village by the Sea would be the first in the nation to legally sell alcohol should not have surprised local residents at the time. San Clemente had gained quite a reputation for bootlegging activities.
There was a trap door at the end of the pier at the time. So-called “rum runners” would pull their boats loaded with illicit hooch under the trap door in the dead of night.
According to the late Jack Lashbrook and other old-timers previously interviewed, if any tourist or local citizen happened to be walking on or fishing from the pier, some big guy with a crooked nose would ask, “You’re not going to be here long, are you?” The correct answer was, “I’m just leaving.”
The cases of booze would then be hoisted up through the trap door and loaded onto a waiting truck. To ensure safe passage through town, one of the bootleggers would call the police to report a terrible crash on “Blood Alley” south of town. The two on-duty cops would rush down there. Meanwhile, the truckload of spirits would leave town in the opposite direction.
After a time, the local police became suspicious of these false alarms. The next time scofflaws tried that trick, law enforcement was waiting for them at the top of Avenida Del Mar. The bootleggers were arrested.
This happened on a weekend, so the question became what to do with all the hooch. It was decided to store it in the judge’s chambers for safe keeping until court opened on Monday.
Again, according to Lashbrook, when court opened Monday morning, half the booze had disappeared. We are told that not a lot of time and effort were spent trying to find out what happened to it.
Longtime resident and current San Clemente Matriarch Lois Divel, among others, confirms that our fair city was known at the time for having the best stocked liquor cabinets in Southern California.
So, on this 100th anniversary, hoist one for San Clemente’s role in ending Prohibition. You can use sparking apple juice, if you prefer.
Tom Marshall is a member of the San Clemente Historical Society and a retired journalist.