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Lunenburg: The Al Capone trail

When Al Capone visited Lunenburg, he was a furniture salesman. At least that’s what his business card said. But what was the gangster really up to in this sleepy town? Trouble, that’s what.

Lunenburg: The Al Capone trail
Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. Image: Barney Moss / CC BY 2.0.

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The historic port of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, is a jewel in Canada’s crown. Inscribed on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites, the former fishing village is vaunted for its distinctive wooden buildings, many of which date back to the 1700s, when the Brits settled on these rugged shores.

Many of the larger houses here have a ‘widow’s watch’ — rooftop platforms with uninterrupted views of the harbour that were used by anxious fishermen’s wives to look out for their husbands’ vessels.

“When a ship came into the harbour, it would be flying a flag,” explains Diane Heisler, a heritage interpreter at the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic. “If it was white it meant all was well, but if it was black it meant men had been lost.”

The houses in Lunenburg are also revered for their colourful frescos, but don’t be fooled by the twee aesthetic: behind the town’s charming facade lies a murky past. You didn’t think Al Capone came for the architecture, did you?

“He was up to no good here,” says Diane, leading me along the harbour. “Just like everywhere else he went.”

It was the lucrative bootlegging business that brought Al Capone to Lunenburg in the 1920s. Prohibition was in full swing in the US and Canada, and this town had become a hub for illicit booze.

“The fishing industry had collapsed,” says Diane, looking out to sea. “There were all these men out of work and all these vessels laid up.”

To make ends meet, these redundant fishermen became ‘rum runners’, making treacherous trips up to the French archipelago of Saint Pierre and Miquelon, off the coast of Newfoundland, to procure booze.

The rewards were great, but the stakes were high. “If you got caught, you’d get a fine, prison or both,” says Diane. “You could even be shot at by the coastguard or have your boat scuttled.”

One Lunenburg resident who took the gamble was Hugh Corkum. He spent the Roaring Twenties dodging the authorities and bootlegging booze before going legit and taking a job… as the local police chief. In other words, he fought the law and then became it. His story is immortalised in the book On Both Sides of the Law, available in the Fisheries Museum.

In 1930, sensible politics prevailed and Prohibition was axed in Nova Scotia. Three years later, the US followed suit. But Lunenburg remains synonymous with liquor, thanks to the Ironworks Distillery, which opened in 2009 and has since won a string of awards for its rum and brandy.

Regular tours of this bijous distillery offer visitors the chance to raise a glass of the good stuff to Prohibition and its wonderful demise.

novascotia.com