On January 17, 1920, the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution went into effect. It prohibited the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors for beverage purposes.” The Amendment was the product of decades of efforts by the temperance movement, which held that a ban on the sale of alcohol would ameliorate poverty and other societal issues.
The success of the Amendment is debatable, but what isn’t was the length criminals went to keep the booze flowing.
You might be surprised to learn how alcohol got the nickname booze.
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For example, NASCAR’s origins are rooted in Prohibition bootlegging, making it a uniquely American sport. Long story short, bootleggers used “souped-up” automobiles to stay ahead of federal agents and local police while transporting illegal whiskey on back roads in the dark of night.
However, thirsty Lancastrians took a different approach. The most creative might have been when a local beer baron, Max Hassel, a mobster out of Reading, shipped his suds nearly 3,000 feet through the sewers of the city with the aid of two spelunking little people.
When Prohibition began, the Rieker family sold control of the Rieker’s Brewery to Hassel. He continued beer production but did it in secret. The next step was how to transport the alcohol.
To keep the appearance of being closed, trucks needed to pick up the illegal beer somewhere else…preferably far away. Hassel devised a plan to run a 2 to 3-inch hard rubber hose (reports vary on its diameter) through the sewer to a nearby abandoned warehouse.
However, the underground route had sections of sewer pipe as small as 18 inches in diameter.
Luckily for Hassel, there were skilled men called “sewer rats.” According to a Lancaster New Era article, “sewer rats” were “dwarfs” who specialized in getting into and through tight spaces.
Hassel had at least two little people brought in from New Jersey. These men started at the Brewery by climbing a wall and through a transom. Next, they struggled down a drain pipe. They eventually worked their way down the West King Street sewer.
The two men dragged the hose four blocks when they suddenly dropped into a pipe that was flooded. The torrent crashed them into a metal grate where they remained pinned by the rising sewage. They nearly drowned before the slop subsided.
After taking a few minutes to recover, they pressed on to the Water Street sewer, where they finally reached an abandoned warehouse near the intersection of Water and Orange Street. According to Google Maps, that’s an underground trek of .6 miles.
Reports also indicate that a second line was also run to Hollenbach’s garage on the 100 block of Old Dorwart Street, but that was soon discovered by city officials.
A few days later, the mobsters had a tapping-of-the-first-keg party at the warehouse, but the beer came out scalding hot and weak as tea.
The men were sent back into sewers to retraced the hose. They eventually discovered that the Manhattan Laundry at 229-231 West King Street was emptying scalding hot water into the sewer directly over the tube, boiling the alcohol out of the beer.
Hassel had a force-pump installed at the Brewery to speed the hops past the hot water. The 3,000-foot long pipeline operated profitably for several years. The whole scheme came to a crashing halt on March 17, 1932, when city employee Andy Flick, found the hose on an inspection at King and Pine Street sewers.
There’s a high probability that Flick found the hose beneath the manhole cover near the center of the street view image above.
City officials found extracting the hose difficult and struggled to understand how it was installed.
Later sections of the famous hose were carried off by souvenir hunters who sawed off chunks turning them into desk pieces, paperweights, and ashtrays.
Eventually, the city took ownership of the hard rubber hose citing it was worth about $2 per foot. They developed plans to utilize it to help flush city sewers.
Rieker’s Brewery soon went out of business and was torn down to make way for Crystal Park.
- Intelligencer Journal March 30, 1932
- Intelligencer Journal March 18, 1932
- Lancaster New Era March 18, 1932
- Pennsylvania Profiles Volume Ten