Sunday, September 11, 2011

Fix-ing the Volstead Act on Grand Island

C.E. Oct. 27, 1925
The Clarence Fix Ferry
They were reputed Rum Barons of the Niagara Frontier;  one time fish pirates; owners of a score of boats, including two submarine chasers, a speedy motor craft and a $65,000 steel ferry; hated and feared; admired and liked--that's the Fix Brothers as they were known to thousands of Buffalonians and everyone along the Niagara from the Lake to the Falls.
     A strange manner of men are these brothers, Frank and Charles, and interesting and romantic are their careers of forty years on the river during the course of which they arose from poor boys to undisputed power and reputed wealth. And they act just the same and talk just the same according to river veterans who have known them all their lives.
Grand Island's History Theirs Also 
    Interwoven into the story of the Fixes, is the story of Grand Island, one time the pleasure ground for the wealthy and the scenes of thousands of picnics, clam bakes and old fashioned parties which ceased with the advent of Volstead. Just as the act of Volstead killed these convivial parties on the river, so did it make this isle of about sixty square miles, and 650 inhabitants a veritable treasure island for hundreds of rum-runners who started to give relief to thirsty persons a few days after the now-famous law took effect and have successfully given such relief, with intermittent interruptions, ever since.    
The Seabreeze, launched in 1907 in a Niagara Street shipyard, & owned by Charles and  Frank Fix, had an original capacity for 600 passengers, later lowered to 300, due to stricter  maritime safety codes. The Seabreeze ran for several years between the foot of Ferry Street and  the Bedell House, ending its career on regularly scheduled trips around Grand Island. The Fix Brothers sold it in 1946.
 The Seabreeze, launched in 1907 in a Niagara Street shipyard, & owned by Charles and 
Frank Fix, had an original capacity for 600 passengers, later lowered to 300, due to stricter 
maritime safety codes. The Seabreeze ran for several years between the foot of Ferry Street 
and the Bedell House, ending its career on regularly scheduled trips around Grand Island. 
The Fix Brothers sold it in 1946.
    The interruptions have been caused by activities of federal officers just as much despised by the veteran river men as "revenoo men" are by the denizens of Tennessee and Kentucky. While Federal enforcement officers have succeeded in decreasing the flow of Canadian liquor, the knowledge of the river and the island, possessed by the nervy runners, gives them a great advantage over the officers.    Of all the men who have lived around the river or on the island, the Fix brothers probably know it best. Either Frank or Charlie could literally pilot any sort of craft blindfolded along this treacherous stream and land it any one of hundreds of coves along Grand Island or the American shore.   
Edgewater Hotel, Grand Island
    The Fix brothers are about fifty-five years old, Frank being about two years older than his brother. Frank is about five feet seven in height, is slender and wirey. Charles weighs well over 200 pounds and is not as active as his brother. Neither cares a whole lot for conventions in dress and both cling to ancient black river captain's hats. The fixes were born on Grand Island on the site where the Edgewater Hotel now stands. The family moved to Black rock when Frank and Charles were boys and have lived there ever since. In all their years neither has been away from the river for more than a few weeks at a time. Both boys started working on the river as helpers on excursion boats when they were in their teens.
    They were not twenty when they bought their first boat, the "Silver King", with the money they saved. In those days of two decades ago any one with an excursion boat was certain to make money during the summer months and the Fixes started to prosper. Nearly every stag organization held a picnic at which the now forbidden fluids flowed un-checked. Hotels on the Island were the mecca for thousands of pleasure seekers, and the wealthy started to build summer homes.
   As far as can be learned the Fixes never took part in the smuggling of Chinese so prevalent and profitable years ago. They devoted their entire attention to their boats, and as they made money, acquired other boats. In time they gradually had so many boats that nearly every excursion party that circled the island traveled on a Fix owned and Fix piloted craft.  As the brothers gained boats and money so did they gain power along the river. Even a decade ago they made many enemies, among these hardy river men of strong likes and dis-likes.   As they made enemies so did they make friends along the river, on the island and in the city. In time they acquired the Grand Island Ferry running from the Bedell House dock to a dock about a mile and a half from the city line off the River road.  

Bedell House Annex and Dock
  The Bedell House, surrounding docks and property, was another profitable purchase made by the brothers. This spot was a rendezvous for many excursion parties and everyone using the ferry boat passed it. So before prohibition it can be readily seen why the Fixes can be regarded along the river "as being pretty well off" and why they were gaining power. But it was not until the advent of prohibition that these unusual brothers startled even those who knew them intimately by their ingenuity and fearlessness. Veterans along the river said the Fixes started running liquor shortly after the law went into effect. Nearly every other river man did too for that matter. They are said to have been buying fast motor boats from wealthy residents of this city and utilized them in their operations.

The operations of the Fixes became so large, so it is said, that every time one of the petty runners became enmeshed through the activity of federal officers, he blamed his fall onto the greediness of the Fix brothers. However nothing could be learned through talks with runners and veterans to confirm these accusations. During these extensive operations never a day did either brother miss as pilot of his boat. Either Frank or Charles took the ferry across. If Frank was piloting the Ferry then Charles would be guiding one of the excursion boats around the island. To all outward appearances they were the same hard-working brothers the river always knew.  Also they were working just as hard in the wee small hours, guiding boats without lights and successfully landing large cargos on the American side.
Seized Liquor
  Bootleggers Paradise
  While these operations were at their height, prohibition enforcement work was just in the organization stage and their extensive operations were virtually unhampered. The Brothers are said to have loaded most of their cargoes on the Canadian shore,  transported across the west river to Grand Island, and then across the island in trucks. The island is replete with fine state roads which in the morning hours are deserted. It was a bootleggers paradise in every sense of the word.
  If conditions along the river were right, the cargoe would be loaded onto another fast boat or onto a steamer, if it were an exceptionally large shipment, then  transported to the American side where the Buffalo distributers were waiting for it. Of course this program of transportation was varied. The Fix Brothers are said to have carried their contraband direct from the Canadian to the American side when the night was propitious. They also made trips to Port Colborne for shipments and on several occasions they are accredited with having sent their own boats as far as Windsor Ontario, a distance of 200 miles, to pick up cargoes.
  As invariably along the River, when the operations of one clique becomes exstensive and that clique gains considerable power, talk about the Fixes became general and this chatter finally reached the ears of former United States Attorney General William J. Donovan. Previous to this the Fixes had suffered only one encounter with the Federal Officers. Agents under Chief Walters raided the Bedell House, in July of 1920 and arrested the Fix Brothers and their bartender. In an upper room of the holstery, Waters found a good size trunk crammed with bills of all denominations. The Fixes were charged with maintaining a nuisance, but were discharged when tried in Federal Court.
District Att. William Donovan
Col. Donovan made no such hasty raid. He detailed Michael H. Stapleton, chief of the enforcement officers, and a number of agents to work up a case against the Fixes. Just how long it took them to gather evidence against the river kings and how extensive their operations becomes apparent upon pursuing the indictments.
  Finally Rounded Up
  The two brothers, Clarence, son of Frank, Herbert Guess, August A. Boeck, Winthrop Moliere, Michael Guzzi and Edward Smith were all rounded up a few days after they had been indicted. Ten counts were contained in the indictments. They covered some of the operations of the Fix gang from January 23, 1923 to March 1st, 1924.
   On June 7, 1923, Frank and Charles transported 1,100 cartons of Canadian ale and fifty one barrels of beer from Canada to the American shore on the Steamer "Charlotte". Six hundred and five cases of ale and fifty barrels of beer were carried to the American distributor on June 15th, while sixty 1/2 barrels of beer and 800 cartons of ale were carried over on the same boat July 6. On July 16 the brothers helped the thirsty by hustling over 350 cases of whiskey. Clarence Fix, Herbert Guess and August Boeck, were charged with carrying 250 cases of ale in the sub-chaser "Stumble-Inn 1" on January 31 1924. 
The "Welcome" Purchased by Frank Fix in 1914
  The Fixes and their henchmen were all arrested on charges of conspiracy to violate the prohibition law and the violation of the tariff act of 1922. The brothers were released on $15,000 bail, while others were released on smaller bail. The specifications in the indictments were sweeping. They charged that the Fix Brothers purchase and used boats, ferries, trucks and other vehicles to transport liquor and ale from Canada to Grand Island. They also charged that the brothers maintained warehouses, barns, docks and buildings along the Niagara frontier as part of their extensive operations and furthermore that they had purchased a resort at the Grand Island ferry landing, near the River road, which they named Stumble Inn, for the sale and distribution of their contraband liquor.
  Another specification charges that the brothers purchased a sub-chaser from the government and named it "Stumble Inn 1". This sub-chaser was used exclusively as a rum-runner, according to the indictment.   It was registered under the name of Clarence Fix. Smith was a bartender at the Bedell House, while Boeck was the manager of the same resort. Moliere and Guess were the crew of the rum-running submarine-chaser.
"Get Away Lucky"    
  The government was prepared to present a powerful case against the Fixs and their henchmen, but the brothers shattered this plan by pleading guilty September 15, 1924. In federal court in Canandaigua, September 20, 1924, Judge Hazel sentenced Charles Fix to three months in the Erie County penitentiary and ordered him to pay a $2,000 fine. Frank got off with a $2,000 fine while Clarence was given a three months sentence and fined $1,000. Moliere was fined $250, Guzzi $50, and Smith $250. Guess and Boeck were discharged. There were rumors at the time that one of the gang members had talked. After the case had been disposed of, it was generally agreed around the river "that the Fixs had got away pretty lucky".
   After commenting on the plea of guilty entered by the brothers, Thomas Penny, Jr. who succeeded Col. Donovan as acting general district attorney, declared he was convinced the most powerful ring of liquor smugglers along the frontier had been smashed.  But they hadn't... When Captain Charlie's "bit" was completed he again appeared around his old river haunts and the Fixs started anew on a much smaller scale. They continued to buy about every boat the government offered for sale after seizure. Enemies of the brothers said they did this so no one else could get the craft to run liquor. Their enemies continued to accuse them of everything, while their friends still maintained that they were "good fellows and just disliked because they just kept on working hard and didn't throw away their money like drunken sailors".
Grand Island Ferry Confiscated by Authorities
   Although men of the river knew what the Fixs were doing from the time Capt. Charlie was released from the "pen" until their steel ferry was seized as a rum-runner December 12, their operations, if they had any, were carried on without ado. Just how the immigration inspectors happened on the ferry when it was carrying liquor is not known, but it is a safe bet that some deadly enemy furnished the information that resulted in the confiscation of a number of cases of liquor and a $65,000 boat. Now the boat is virtually under arrest and so is Frank F. Fix. He faces a charge of smuggling.
  Nothing daunted, the brothers started hustling around to get another boat to conduct their ferry service between Buffalo and Grand Island. The only means residents of the island had of reaching the city while the ferry was not running was to drive to the lower ferry dock, and thence from the lower ferry to Tonawanda. The government had put their ferry out of business, so the Fixs went to the government to get another boat.                                                                
  They purchased the tug "Parmelee" which had come into the hands of the government through the bankruptcy of the Holleway Sand Co. The tug, with a scow attached was pressed into service as a ferry last Wednesday. The Courier reporter made a trip to Grand Island on it, and Capt. Frank, as usual, was at the wheel. Enquiry among river men as to how many boats the Fixs owned brought the information "that they must own forty". The registry office shows that three barges, one scow, eight steamers and three gasoline boats are registered under the name of the Fixs. Included in this group is the "Charlotte" which is said to have carried thousands of cases of ale and whiskey since the start of prohibition, and the "Doctor," another prize of the Niagara Rum Fleet. Included in the list of gasoline boats is the "Stumble Inn 1," the former sub-chaser.
   Armed with this list, the Courier reporter again talked to several river men and was informed "that it didn't mean a thing." "They have plenty of fast speed boats registered under their names." He declared he knew of one purchase of a fast motor boat from a prominent Buffalo motor boat enthusiast. It was bought for $3,000, used as a rum-runner for some time, then sold by the Fixs to a Port Colborne smuggler at a handsome profit. It is an accepted fact that the Fixs own as many and as varied type of craft as the well press-agented rum syndicates of the Atlantic coast.
Above Subchaser was similar to the ones Purchased 
by the Fix Brothers which they named "Stumble Inn 1
"-USS S.C. 48 "Stumble Inn 2" USS S.C. 208
   In the purchase of the sub-chaser and the utilizing of it as a rum-runner the Fixs also enjoy a unique distinction. Also, Grand Island, the place they know so well, is unrivaled by Long Island or any other island as an ideal base of operations for smugglers of contraband. Although the brothers are never known to have flashed guns or tossed any of their crew overboard, according to the men who know them best, they are just as fearless as the rum kings of the coast. That's the Fixs, rum barons and river kings.
  Modern Capt. Kidds, Say Some
     When the reporter started his investigation into the careers of these colorful river men, he chose many of his enemies for information. The brothers were pictured as modern Capt. Kidds, who not only owned the river but were making strenuous efforts to control the water in it. They were termed government informers and many other things highly derogatory to kings or barons. The reporter was told of the time about 4 years ago when Capt. Frank was convicted of dynamiting fish. Incidentally this, to river men, was no crime, because it took too long to snare them with a hook. A good charge of dynamite would cause hundreds of denizens of the deep to come to the surface in a hurry, turn over on their backs and quietly give themselves up to the large nets of the fish pirates. Every fisherman knows a hook does not have any such magic effect as dynamite.  For this breach of fishing etiquette, Frank was fined $1,000. Bad fellows were these Fixs so their enemies said.
From 1931 until 1955, the "Orleans" was owned by Charles Fix. 
In 1955, while laid up at the Fix Dock in Grand Island, the vessel 
was damaged by ice. She was scrapped that same year.
  Next the reporter sought out a man who is known along the river nearly as well as the Fixs and who has known them all their lives. "They are not very well liked by you people, are they?" the reporter asked. "Liked" said this veteran, "I think they are the best fellows on the river. They talk about them trying to own everything and doing certain things to different people, but it's wrong. I know one time a certain big bootlegger came to me and said the Fixs were the cause of him losing a big cargo and getting arrested in the bargain. I told him he was wrong and afterwards he found out he was. They have never done any harm to anyone unless you can say bringing in booze is doing harm.
  "I know another time some years back when the Fixs were running their ferry down to the Wickwire, bringing the steel plant men to the foot of Amherst Street. This was a cold winter day and both brothers were on the ferry. Just at the city line they saw a row boat with two fishermen in it drifting into a treacherous ice-floe near the shore. When the ferry got abreast of the small boat, it had become fastened in the ice. It was too far from shore to throw a line and it was in a position that would make it impossible for any boat but the ferry to get at it. "Those men would have froze to death in a few hours only for Frank F. Fix. He worked nearly two hours getting his boat around in such a position that he could toss a line to them and rescue them. Real bad men don't go far out of their way to help someone else."
  Then I remember one night on the Island, when the ferry was tied up for the night, a fellow with a young girl came up and asked if the ferry had left. He knew it had and wanted to miss it because there was no other way to get to the city. Frank looked at me and said, 'she's somebody's daughter and I'm going to see that she don't stay on the Island all night.' He loosened the ropes and made the trip to the city with just two passengers. "Yes, sir, brother there are hundreds who knock them but I've been around this river all my life and I'ld walk to Lockport in my bare feet anytime for them."
  Strange manner of men, indeed, are these intrepid river captains who are liked and hated with such intensity. And stranger still is the fact that these reputed rum kings of great wealth still pilot their numerous craft, winter and summer, in the same manner they did nearly forty years ago.
Government Coast Guard fleet assembled to deal with Rum Runners on Lake Erie.
View is in the Barge Canal near Buffalo, after which the fleet was scattered to different parts 
of the Lake.  1928

TRUTH - October 2, 1926  

The "Baron of Grand Island" Comes Back  Once more, Frank Fix, "Baron of Grand Island," has fallen afoul of the Prohibition Law. Falling afoul of the prohibition law is probably one the best things Mr. Fix does, Mr. Fix and various sundry members of his family. From time to time stories have circulated regarding the liquor caches on the island and the raconteurs have insisted the liquors was the property of the Fix establishment. At one time Mr. Fix bought a submarine chaser with which he was to embark in the rum trade. Just how many trips the craft made only Mr. Fix knows but the boat now is rusting away at a Grand Island dock. 
  But, according to residents, Mr. Fix is now the happy owner of a speed boat capable of a speed of some 40 miles an hour which is fast enough to outfoot anything that Uncle Sam boasts in the pursuing line, at least in the Buffalo district. So it is safe to assume that the rum running activities in the river will go merrily on despite the efforts of the federal government to dampen the ardor of the Island natives.

Captain Frank F. Fix died of a heart attack at the helm of the Seabreeze as it left the Amherst Street pier on a Sunday afternoon for a pleasure cruise around the Island, August 26, 1945. He is buried in Whitehaven Cemetery.
Charles Fix died in 1934
Captain Clarence Fix, Franks Son, died January 5, 1961

Related Grand Island Stories: 

The Busti Avenue Light House

The Buffalo Grand Island War of 1819

Noah's Grand Island, A Refuge For His People


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow, I love these articles about Buffalo and Western New York. In the 1960's we went to school with the kids from Grand Island, before a high school was built. Fondly we called them "the Grand Island Farmers."