Prohibition 1919 – 1931

America’s most notorious rumrunner, the 50 ft. Black Duck was powered by twin aircraft engines and was capable of speeds over 30 mph., fast enough to out-run the Coast Guard cutters of her day

The Story of the Speakeasy’s of Liberty Street

The Story of the Black Duck 

Charles Travers was born in Dartmouth to Frank P. and Mary (Avila) Travers in 1906. Charlie was an excellent mechanic, avid boatman and former Coast Guard surfmen on Cuttyhunk. The surfmen were the men who were stationed on shore stations and would take to boats to rescue stranded and wrecked ships. The Cuttyhunk, Cape Cod and Buzzards Bay area’s coastline is notoriously dangerous, strewn with massive boulders and rips. The surfmen were the Coast Guard personnel who braved the seas that had made wreckage of some of the best ships and sailors that sailed the local waters, and the world for that matter. The surfmen put out in small boats, some powered by oars, later by small gasoline engines, hoping to save those stranded in sea wrecks. The job of surfmen was not for the faint of heart, and Charlie was perfect for the job.  

After his enlistment was up Charlie started fishing out of Fairhaven with his cousin, John Goulart, they lived across the road from each other on Sconticut Neck Road.  

Rumrunners were active in the Fairhaven area and often their runs were disrupted by the Coast Guardsmen on Patrol boats. Men whose job it was to be Customs Revenuers preventing undeclared and illegal contraband from reaching shores of the American public. That contraband consisted of alcohol during prohibition, narcotics and illegal aliens.  

It wasn’t uncommon for fisherman to stumble on the drop location of a rumrunner that had discharged their cargo while being chased by Coast Guard boats. Liquor transported by illegal means was found to be easiest to handle bundled in sets of 5 or 6 bottles, protected by straw, sewn into burlap sacks, known as “hams”. These were easier, primarily for their ability to sink, rather than float, as a wooden case wood for a time. The benefit being that the evidence was not to be seen during a chase when the hams were discharged over the side of the boat, returning later to recover the liquor after the escape was made.  

It is safe to assume, that being on the heels of the depression, a fisherman with his own boat and who found a discharged cache of illegal liquor and brought it ashore to sell, soon found the liquor business much more profitable than fishing.  

About one year later, newspaper accounts show Charlie Travers, working with Frank Butler on the ‘Tramp’, which was seized in Mattapoisett while trying to run in a load of $10,000 worth of liquor.  

Though official reports may differ, good sources say that Charlie and Frank were partners on their next boat, the ‘Nola’. Considered the ‘queen’ of the rumrunners, the partnership lasted until the Nola was captured in 1931, only after the cargo erupted in flames.  

In 1927 Charlie bought the ‘Black Duck‘ out of Gloucester, MA. Outfitted with two V-12 Liberty aircraft engines producing 300 horsepower each, and capable of 500 under a skilled hand, the Duck was able to reach 32 knots. Faster than anything the Coast Guard had in their inventory of, surf rescue boats, tugboats and old destroyers at the time. Newspaper accounts would later prove that Jacob Weissman, using the alias ‘Jack Williams’ bought the engines for Charlie from a Fall River engine dealer.  

The Black Duck was successful as a rum boat for two years. During that time the Coast Guard had suspicions that she was running liquor or operating as a ‘black ship’ as they were known for the tendency to paint them in colors that would blend into the night. Although she was documented as being boarded 5 times, alcohol was never to be found on her.  

Charlie was tutored in the business of rum running well. The Black Duck, although owned and operated by Charlie Travers, was registered under the name of Jacob Weissman of Providence, RI. This act of subterfuge was used in the event that a boat might be pursued, but have to be abandoned somewhere, with or without its cargo. The owner would usually happen to be nowhere near the boat when it was found, establishing a solid alibi for theft and misuse of his vessel.  

Over a half a century ago, the rumrunner Black Duck was such a  
fed-dodging legend. During prohibition, the speedy “rummy” continually out-ran the Coast Guard, much to the delight of drinkers throughout New England. For over a decade, the Black Duck was a constant embarrassment to the authorities and was at the top of the “Coasties’ wanted list. 

However, those Coast Guardsmen were hardly Keystone Kops.  
With deck-mounted machine guns and speedy boats, they were more a match for most of the rumrunners.  

Unfortunately, the Black Duck finally ran out of luck in December of 1929.  

A patrol vessel commanded by Alex Cornell (a nautical version of Eliot Ness) spotted the rumrunner off Newport, Rhode Island. Attempting to escape, the “Duck” zigged when it should have zagged and caught Coast Guard gunfire broadside, which killed three crew member. Cornell finally had his boat and 383 cases of contraband liquor as well. Subsequently, the public was enraged by the loss of life among their beloved bootleggers. Anti-Coast Guard riots grew so violent in Boston that the district commander had to be “spirited” out of town to avoid a lynching. 

Ironically, the captured Black Duck was refitted as a Coast Guard patrol vessel. Even worse, it was assigned to Alex Cornell who successfully chased down several rumrunners before prohibition ended in 1933. Occasionally, the legendary smuggler comes alive in the conversations of a few old-timers here at the bar. Listen to them carefully and then raise a toast to the memory of the Black Duck!