BY Iris Parker-Pavitt
Before jurisdiction over San Juan waters was decided with the outcome of the “Pig War” boundary dispute in 1872, trade with Canada without the use of customs or duties was the norm. However, after the San Juans were ruled to be United States territory, this practice became not trade but smuggling.
In 1891, Senator Watson C. Squire stated that “More opium is smuggled into this country by way of Puget Sound and the border of British Columbia than through all other ports.”
After the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 went into effect, Chinese workers seeking employment in the U.S. were forced to resort to illegal means of entering the country. This resulted in high profits for smugglers in Puget Sound who were willing to risk the trip from Vancouver, but often dehumanizing treatment for the Chinese people who undertook this long voyage. The price of a crossing over the Canadian border is difficult to gauge, with reported prices ranging from $10 to $500 per head after the Exclusion Act.
Larry Kelly, who has been described as “the most hunted man in smuggling circles in the Puget Sound country for more than two decades”, does indeed have the reputation and resume to be considered the king of the smugglers.
Lawrence Kelly, born in 1845 in an unknown location, allegedly began his smuggling career Maine carrying cargoes of whiskey. He then lived for a short time in Alaska, became a sailor, and fought for the Confederacy before arriving in Guemes Island sometime between 1872 and 1878. In 1877 he married 16 year-old Lizzie Kotz, with whom he had nine children.
Island resident Bob Pearmain recalls the Deer Harbor general store serving as a meeting place for islanders to socialize, buy staple groceries, catch up on the news, and also purchase bootleg whiskey. During Prohibition, “rum runners” smuggled whiskey to the store where it was hid on shelves behind the regular trade goods. The whiskey was “worth $16 a quart when eggs were 15 cents a dozen.”
Canada continued to be the main route for bringing illegal goods to the islands. One islander would row to Sidney, B.C. during the night to pick up a sack of whiskey. In the morning, he would appear to be fishing off of Speiden Island; he would later sell his cargo to summer resorts.