The northern tip of the Maine coast was a smugglers’ paradise for generations. In fact, Maine smuggling was an essential part of the economy there.
The famous turncoat Benedict Arnold chose to set himself up on Campobello Island to engage in illegal trade with America shortly after the American Revolution. Arnold recruited men from both the Canadian and U.S. sides of the border to load and unload merchandise.
Then in the War of 1812, Maine’s northern coast served as a prime thoroughfare for smuggled goods.
And the booze smugglers were an industry unto themselves as Maine adopted prohibition in the late 1800s. They slipped in and out of the lightly patrolled coves and rivers. They also brought imbibers across to Canadian bars for a legal taste.
It was no picnic for the customs agents, or ‘preventers,’ on either side of the border. A Canadian preventer’s son was kidnapped in one attempt to stop the illegal plaster trade. Pushing and shoving occasionally turned to gun play and threats as the customs agents were held at bay. Nationally, Maine got a reputation as a wild center for smuggling. But a raid on Calais in 1837, recorded in the Annals of Calais, Maine and St. Stephen, New Brunswick probably tops all the stories for sheer ingenuity and moxie.
Lumber was the matter at hand at the time. Lumber came down the Saint Croix River from both Canada and the United States. The river snakes its way through Calais, separating the two countries as it carves an exotic series of “S” curves on its way to the ocean. Crossing between Canada and the United States was as simple as walking across a bridge, or in winter as simple as walking across the ice when the river froze.
When the lumber reach the mouth of the river, it was taxed. Crafty lumbermen would declare the lumber’s country of origin based upon which country would cost them less. Customs officials were hard pressed to differentiate between a Canadian log and one from the U.S.
In 1837, however, the Customs House seemed to be getting smarter. One, two, three loads they declared illegal because they had the wrong country of origin. There was only one explanation: Someone who knew where the lumber was coming from upstream was providing that information to the Customs Office.
The town was outraged. The Calais Advertiser labeled the informant an “odious villain.” One man accused of informing placed an advertisement in the paper. He declared he didn’t inform, and customs officers attested that he told the truth.
Finally, a group from town decided to put an end to the information flow. U.S. Customs had seized a cache of U.S. contraband across the border in Saint Stephen. On the bridge to America, the customs officer was greeted with an odd sight – a band of men dressed as Indians.
The men seized the officer, placed him in a wagon and drove him to into the woods on the Canadian side. Along the way, one of the disguised men dragged a sword along the rolling wagon wheel, sharpening it in a menacing manner.
The customs officer did not hold out long. While he may not have named the informant, he gave the crowd enough information to identify him. Faced with the charge, the informant fled town and the smuggling activity returned to normal.
This story last updated in 2022.