Just after the morning sun peeked out from behind Saddleback Mountain, the panga – a Mexican open-air fishing boat – crudely painted blue and green, motored toward the beach in Crystal Cove.
A mass of people in life jackets huddled in the boat, its name La Choya, or The Crow, hand-painted in white on its bow. The passengers on this early morning in 2010 were most likely a group of illegal immigrants making a stealth voyage from Mexico to Orange County under the cover of night, without running lights.
This is how I imagine it happened: A couple of vans waited atop the bluff at Crystal Cove State Beach, having paid the $10 parking charge, not for a day of surfing or sunbathing, but to pick up the human cargo about to be delivered on Orange County’s shore. On La Choya, hearts thumped as the most dangerous leg of the journey to the United States was about to begin. The boat cut across the kelp beds just off shore, pushed through the small shore break and the passengers ran up on the beach. The captain and his passengers leapt from the boat onto the sand, throwing off life jackets and wet clothes as they dashed across the beach and scrambled up the bluffs that guard Crystal Cove. Early morning joggers and beachcombers watched the surreal getaway scene unfold in front of them. Someone called 911 to alert the authorities.
By the time police arrived, the boat people had disappeared; I’m guessing they were already in vans heading north or south on Pacific Coast Highway toward a safe house and new life in the United States.
The smugglers from Mexico had no way of knowing, but they were following tradition when they chose Crystal Cove as a drop point for their contraband. During Prohibition in the early ’30s, bootleggers found the secluded stretch of beach to be a perfect place to off-load cases of rum and whiskey. The boats, painted black, would motor just off shore in the dark, scanning the ocean and beach for any signs that the authorities were onto them. If the rumrunners sensed danger, they would toss their cargo overboard. The next morning, early residents of Crystal Cove often found the bottles on the beach, brought in by the incoming tide.
Occasionally, the bootleggers got caught. In one black-and-white photograph from the era, 11 men armed with rifles appear to be in a standoff with a rumrunner, whose small wooden boat bobs 50 yards off Crystal Cove. But oftentimes, those delivering hooch to the mainland simply bypassed a clandestine rendezvous at Crystal Cove – along with a potentially treacherous beach landing – in favor of simply unloading the cargo in plain sight on a Newport Harbor pier near the Balboa Pavilion. They loaded the cases into sedans, and characters with names like Ted the Bootlegger delivered the booze to Los Angeles, but not before Balboa merchants got their share of the contraband.
Balboa in those days was a wide-open, honky-tonk town, where residents and visitors could find drinks, gambling and working women without much trouble. From the late Judge Robert Gardner’s writings – including his highly entertaining book, Bawdy Balboa – we know that bootleg alcohol could be found at several local establishments, including a drug store where “you couldn’t buy so much as an aspirin tablet, but you could get illegal straight alcohol across the counter for two-bits an ounce.” At Workman’s Casino on Main Street, you only had to wink while asking for a carton of cigarettes, and Dad Workman would put a bottle of rum in the box for you. Down the Peninsula near the Newport Pier, Henry Stark’s bar (later renamed Sid’s Blue Beet) never stopped serving alcohol. “When Prohibition arrived,” wrote Gardner, who grew up in Balboa, “Mr. Stark treated the law with lofty indifference and remained open. In those days, this was a tolerant town.”
Stark’s, by the way, also served as the site of Newport’s longest running poker game, which, Gardner reported with his usual assurance, began in 1912 and only ended when Sid Soffer bought the establishment in the mid-1960s. “When the saloon closed at 2 a.m.,” Gardner wrote, “they simply closed the door between the bar and the poker game. The game would then continue until the saloon opened again at 6 a.m.”
Newport Beach’s first police chief, Rowland Hodgkinson, made Balboa’s relaxed attitude toward Prohibition and other illegal vices possible. Though he would serve the city well for 25 years, beginning in 1928, Hodgkinson came to the job as a novice. He and his mother had run a hamburger joint on Main Street. “It was a wide-open town, and he went along with it,” Gardner recalled. “All the cops went along with it.”
Today’s a different era. Newport Beach cops and residents may have been tolerant of bootleggers, gambling and prostitutes in the early part of 1900s, but not so much 100 years later.
In practical terms, the town now turns a blind eye toward illegal immigrants – workers who often can be found cleaning the houses, remodeling homes and maintaining the gardens of Newport residents.
Maybe that’s why, despite being for tough border enforcement and meaningful sanctions on businesses that knowingly hire illegal immigrants, I found myself feeling oddly happy when I read that the people aboard La Choya had evaded capture. Why crack down on folks willing to risk an open-sea voyage in a rickety boat who are only meeting our demand? (I understand and support the legal argument; I’m talking about emotion here.)
Or maybe I’m just a bootlegger at heart.