George Westermeier, the bridgekeeper of the Cantilever Bridge, watched across the bay from his home. He was technically off duty, but regardless he always had an eye on the bridge.
It was 1932. The last year of the Prohibition. Bootlegging was at an all-time high, and the Cantilever Bridge was at the center of importing Canadian contraband into the U.S.
The borderland was an ideal location for a “blind pig” (or speakeasy) for the illegal sale of whiskey and other spirits. Despite the occasional raid, resorts across the region sold alcohol to patrons. It wasn’t too difficult to smuggle whiskey across the border, partly due to its location and partly because police turned a blind eye.
But this particular day, the United States Customs wanted to set an example. A tip led them directly to the freight train as it was leaving Ranier, a little after 9:00 pm.
Eighty barrels of Canada’s finest whiskey were on a carload, hidden under bundles of shingles. The train coming from Winnipeg was on its way to Chicago for The Chicago Christmas trade. The bootleg was worth $63,200 wholesale if it had made its way to Chicago.
Across the bay, George noticed the huge flood lights were on full blast as government officials searched the train cars. The car of shingles was detached from the train, double padlocked, and quickly was surrounded by a mob of officials, guarding the contraband from anyone who sought to rescue the barrels.
Charles Houska, the Customs Inspector, noticed irregularities in the papers covering the particular freight car, the only one that mattered to the people of Chicago. The inventory of 400 shingles rather than the usual 1,000 was odd. His suspicions were confirmed when the train rolled across the Rainy River Cantilever drawbridge and they slid the door aside. The doorway was packed tightly to the roof with bundles of shingles.
“I know from experience that it takes 1,000 to 1,200 bundles of shingles to fill a car that tight” Charles said. “Search it!” he shouted to the officials.
The officials began unloading the bundles of shingles and soon discovered a strange frame arrangement holding them tightly in place. The bundles of shingles were removed and the investigators encountered curious wooden boxes, strapped with steel bands.
One of the investigators grabbed an ax and chopped at one of the boxes. It gave way, and they found sawdust. Another hit, more sawdust. Sawdust poured out of the box until they were able to peer inside and find a wooden keg. They moved the box and could hear the gurgle of the liquid moving inside.
Charles Houska said to an official, “Go to the nearest store and ask to borrow a brace and a bit, a siphon hose, and a cup.” The man went to Joe Oster’s bar where the lights were still burning bright. Joe retrieved the items and delivered them in person to Charles.
The investigators tapped the keg and filled the cup. There was no doubt it was whiskey, but they were unsure if it was good or bad. Whiskey is best to drink at room temperature, and it was around 20 degrees below zero. Drinking whiskey in these temperatures would mute the aroma giving them clues to its quality.
Charles ordered the Customs officials to seal up the boxcar and stationed a guard to protect it. They needed a truck. That would have to wait until morning...