Bootleggers on the Bay
The Tin Box Memories

Bootleggers on the Bay

Author: Connie Carson

Connie is a well-known local story-teller and professional who has a passion for the history of the City of Belleville, in particular, the downtown streets.



The Roaring Twenties was just around the corner, and talkie cinemas, cars, radios and
airplanes were available to anyone wealthy enough to afford one. The Great War and
the Spanish flu pandemic were over. It should have been a time of celebration for the
working class citizens of Belleville, except there was no alcohol to celebrate with! The
hard-hit Belleville area was slowly recovering from the war, and jobs were scarce.

The controversial Ontario Temperance Act had been passed that stipulated alcohol
could still be manufactured and imported but no longer sold to the public.
Suddenly, rumrunners and bootleggers were striking it rich overnight, and our city
jumped on board the gravy train!

The close proximity between Corby Distilleries, who were manufacturing 50,000 gallons
of hooch a month, and the shores of the Bay of Quinte was an irresistible combination
for easy money. A guy could make more in a week of alcohol smuggling than in a whole
year of fishing.

Take a journey back in time with me as I recount the adventures of four miscreant rum
runners with local ties to our area.


During the 1920s, the infamous smuggler, Claude  ‘King’ Cole from Cape Vincent, New
York and the Milford area, owned Main Duck Island, a convenient home base located
just north of the U.S. Canadian border. King was an affable, middle-aged grandfather
and well-respected member of his close-knit island community. As his story unfolds, we
see he was also a risk-taker and no stranger to danger.

King purchased unlimited booze from Corby Distillery, beer from the Belleville Brewery,
and Old Tower beer from Kingston; then transported the illegal cargo late at night across
Lake Ontario to the American border. He ran a very lucrative, albeit illegal bootlegging
business in 1921 until Belleville and Ontario Provincial Police officers raided Main Duck
Island and arrested him.

Inspector Frank Naphan and Sergeant Dan Boyd of the Belleville police, Detective
Sergeant Fred Izard, and constable Bill Evans headed up the raid. At his trial a
sympathetic Picton magistrate dismissed the case, returning Cole’s confiscated booze
to him. The seizure went down in the history books as the first rum-running raid by
authorities on Lake Ontario. Cole went down in the books as one of the first and most
prosperous smugglers during Prohibition. King Cole decided to give up rum-running and
returned to other adventures, including horse breeding and racing. He passed away on
his island in 1936.

Dr. Hedley Welbanks DVM

Dr. Welbanks was born and raised in Prince Edward County and lived in a historic brick
house on James Street in Belleville at one time. This likeable, portly, cigar-smoking
veterinarian was a very well-known bootlegger in the 1920s. The Doc could legally write
prescriptions stating his alcohol was used for curing sick horses and he made full use of
a huge legal loophole!

During Prohibition, he visited the farming communities around the area, peddling his
famous white liniment consisting of one part alcohol and two parts water. Men from the
Foster Ward wharf area, farmers, and fishermen from the county worked for him. They
used three smaller boats for smuggling booze to American importers and he organized
the fishermen’s rum fleet, which operated, seemingly quite legally out of the Quinte area
for Corby’s Distillery.

The highlight of his controversial career cumulated in 1928 with his favourite boat being
seized by the coast guard for tax evasion and eventually sold by the Customs
commissioner at public auction. When all avenues to repurchase it failed, the Doc came
up with a brand new diabolical scheme. He decided to steal it back from the customs
commission! Acting on a tip, he knew it would be anchored overnight at Brighton
Harbour. Under cover of darkness, Doc jumped aboard the boat, brandishing his army
service revolver as the two-man crew slept. He waved the gun around and declared he
was retaking possession of his beloved boat, called Rosella.

The OPP arrested Welbanks; he cooled his heels in jail overnight and was charged
with theft the following day. Magistrate Mikel ruled in Welbank’s favour, and the doc
reclaimed his boat. After that incident, no drivers around would work for him, so he
decided to sell his last remaining boat.

Fortune smiled upon Doc Welbanks when Charlie Mills, an old rum runner
acquaintance, returned to Belleville. He bought the Rosella, shined her up and renamed
her. The doc returned to his veterinary practice and passed away in 1961.

Charlie P Mills

Charlie, a former stunt pilot and barnstormer, became Gentleman Charlie Mills a
wealthy boater and bootlegger in 1922 by running beer and whiskey across Lake
Ontario from Canada. The soft-spoken, affable and charming ladies man carried up to a
thousand cases of booze aboard his cruiser.

Charlie’s sometime girlfriend Jennie Batley was the only recorded woman rum smuggler
during the roaring Twenties. Charlie had at least one lady friend, a house in Belleville,
Ontario, a wife and another home in Sanborn, New York, three large boats, several
flashy cars, and an airplane.

In 1925 Charlie’s luck changed for the worse. He was arrested by the U.S. police, his
wife left him, and we’re not sure what happened to the girlfriend(s). Charlie was
convicted and sent to prison in Atlanta, Georgia, for a year and a day. When released,
he returned to bootlegging, but lost two boats in 1928, the last one beached under a
blast of bullets as he ran for cover into the woods. After that, he gave up bootlegging,
and Gentleman Charlie Mills became a very well-to-do farmer in the Niagara area.

Jonathon Benjamin Kerr

Born in 1886, this enterprising, rebellious young man with a fiery and explosive temper
was well known to the authorities as one of the most notorious rum-runners of the era.
He was a plumber by day and a charismatic, talented piano player in the ice cream
parlour at the Presquile Hotel by night. His stage name was Bensley Kerr and the ladies
loved the good looking, 6 ft tall crooner. He owned a popular boat storage building and
Marina in Hamilton. Ironically, it is now home to the Hamilton Police Marine Unit site.

In 1921 Ben made up to three runs a night from the Belleville Harbour to Rochester in
his jet black speed boat called the Pollywog. He loaded cases of booze at the
government dock in Belleville and headed across the Bay at 4 pm every day, weather
permitting. His affluent customers loved the fine whiskey and exotic spirits he delivered
from Corby Distilleries.

In 1929 and under mysterious circumstances, Ben’s lucrative and flamboyant life ended
when his body washed up on the beach at the shores of Lake Ontario. Details
surrounding his death remain shrouded in mystery and speculation. Ben went down in
history as the most infamous rum runner on this side of Lake Ontario.

The true stories of high-speed boat chases, shootouts, midnight runs across the Lakes,
arson and even murder are part of the fabric of Belleville’s history.
When taking a leisurely drive or a scenic boat ride along the Bay of Quinte, reflect for a
moment on the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ guys that travelled before us in the days of the Rum
Runners and Bootleggers.

C.W. Hunt, a legendary local writer published many excellent books about the Rum
Running days, with Gentleman Charlie and the Lady Rum Runner being one of my
personal favourites.


Fun Fact
Rum-runners and moonshiners often wore ‘Cow Shoes’ in the snow to evade capture.
Cow shoes had carved wooden blocks attached to the heels to resemble a cow’s hoof
so the smuggler’s footprints would look like hoof prints.