May-June 2021

Bottoms up

During Prohibition, spirits flowed at a Cabin John Island speakeasy

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Photo illustration by Alice Kresse

In January 1919, America embarked on an audacious and uncertain experiment: Prohibition. The newly ratified 18th Amendment to the Constitution opened the way for Congress the following year to outlaw the manufacture, transportation and sale of alcohol across the nation. America was going dry.

In Montgomery County, local temperance groups preaching the evils of alcohol and the dangers of a drunken America had been advocating for a nationwide ban for years, holding meetings and rallies around the county to advance their cause. Eventually the groups helped push through Maryland’s ratification of the amendment.

But the ban wasn’t followed by everyone in the county. A drink could be had—if one knew where to look.

On Cabin John Island, a small plot of land across the C&O Canal from the town of Glen Echo, local entrepreneurs had created a hideaway for people seeking a potent libation. Originally the home of summer cottages and fishermen’s shacks, the island sprouted some new—and illegal—features after 1920.

In the woods, two stills produced spirits that were served at a speakeasy set up in one of the old summer cottages, according to the remembrances of locals. Patrons could reach the island by boat.

The activities apparently were known to the residents of Glen Echo—the town had taken over jurisdiction of the island from the C&O Canal Co. before Prohibition. Attempting to deter potential partiers by blocking access to the island, the town erected fences around river landings and posted “no parking” signs along Cornell Avenue, a popular place for spirit-seekers to park. Still, they came.

There may have been other speakeasies—secretive by nature, their locations unrecorded—in Bethesda and around the county. And it’s unknown whether the island speakeasy was ever raided by police. But the need for such establishments would end with the repeal of Prohibition in 1933.

A return to the wet days wasn’t supported by everyone. When it came time to dispatch a delegate to the General Assembly’s ratification convention in Annapolis, 750 Bethesda residents voted to send a repeal delegate, defeating the 197 that opposed repeal. Similar votes for repeal won the day in Chevy Chase and Glen Echo. Takoma Park, home of members of the health-conscious Seventh-day Adventist Church, voted to remain dry, as did Damascus in the northern part of Montgomery County (both are wet today). Elsewhere in the county, the taps were open again.

The county didn’t return to its unregulated past after Prohibition ended. Instead, officials created a Liquor Control Board, along with a dispensary system that required bar owners to obtain their liquor through the county, which became the sole distributor of spirits. Bethesda resident Dr. Benjamin C. Perry was selected to lead the new board.

Dozens of clubs and businesses soon applied to the board for licenses. A license to serve on the premises cost $50, and one for off-site sales cost $25.

As for that hideaway on Cabin John Island, a devastating flood in 1936 washed everything away, destroying any reminders of the place where local residents could steal away for a drink.

Author and historian Mark Walston (markwalston@comcast.net) was raised in Bethesda and lives in Olney.