Spokane celebrates its last New Year's Eve before Prohibition on December 31, 1915.

  • By Laura Arksey
  • Posted 12/19/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9669

On December 31, 1915, New Year's Eve, Spokane celebrates its last New Year's Eve before the Prohibition law takes effect at 12 midnight. Thus the celebrations at  hotels, taverns, and nightclubs are different from those of previous years. Parties may continue as long as anyone cares to linger, but the last alcoholic beverage must be consumed by the stroke of midnight, for Prohibition will become the law of the state on January 1, 1916. Washington is among a number of states to adopt various forms of such laws prior to ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution on January 16, 1919. In Washington Prohibition is already in effect in some communities, due to Local Option, allowing incorporated towns and counties to vote "dry" or "wet." Up to this point Spokane has been "wet."

Drinking But Not Serving or Selling 

In November 1914, Washington State had passed Initiative Measure Number 3 forbidding the manufacture and sale, but not the consumption, of alcoholic beverages statewide, to become effective January 1, 1916. Newspaper explanations of the law may have given rise to very flexible interpretations. A banner headline, Dry Law Upheld, reporting the result of a court challenge, appeared on the front page of the Spokane Daily Chronicle on December 10, 1915. It offered the following ambiguous guidance: “It is made unlawful to manufacture, sell, barter, exchange, give away, furnish or otherwise to dispose of intoxicating liquor, or even to keep it except in small amount, but a private person may give liquor to guests in his own house” (Dry Law). 

Left largely unexplained in newspaper articles was what would be the source of liquor that private persons could consume or offer to guests. Newspaper advertisements revealed that one source would be Montana, where during late 1915 mail-order houses had taken out full-page ads in Washington papers advertising prepaid shipments of beer and liquor. The law actually allowed an individual to import from outside the state as much as two quarts of hard booze or 12 quarts of high percentage beer each 29 days, but he had to get a permit from his county auditor in order to do so. The Spokane County auditor reported in 1917 that, in a county of only 44,000 registered voters, he had issued 34,000 permits.

The massive demand on this system made it totally unwieldy. Before long, rumrunners, bootleggers, and moonshiners were supplying individuals, so-called “pharmacies,” and speakeasies. The 1914 prohibition law “would burn out the saloons and the indigenous liquor industry, but not liquor” (Clark, 130).  

Catching Post-Midnight Violators

Not surprisingly, the Anti-Saloon League took a strict interpretation of the new law, announcing plans for a committee of volunteers to look for after-midnight violators. Declared Louis R. Horton, Eastern Washington Superintendent of the organization: “Any hotel or restaurant that sells or serves or gives away liquor after 12 o’clock on Friday night, December 31, is just as guilty of violating the prohibition law as if it did so six months from now” (Sober). However, several days later, he clarified that the Anti-Saloon League had no intention of harassing private citizens consuming liquor in their own homes:

“We do not want to be hard on the man who wants to keep his own supply for personal consumption. ... The citizen who puts his liquors quietly away in his cellar and consumes them in the ordinary fashion will not be in danger, but the man who has a drunken carousal, a noisy gathering or two, or anything else that will help create the impression and attitude that prohibition does not make any difference … will be hauled into court and his place cleaned out” (Carousing).

Present at the Death of Durkin's Taverns

As Spokane’s most notable publican, James “Jimmie” Durkin (1859-1934) made good copy in the city newspapers during the run-up to prohibition. As the leading wholesaler and owner of three flourishing taverns, he was certainly affected. On July 31, 1915, he told the Spokesman-Review: “We finish here now. Someday it is my personal opinion there will be a reversal of the prohibition policy. In any case, I and my organization will give the law the strictest obedience” (Durkin). A later article published a copious inventory of the liquor he had on hand during late 1915. In November Durkin ran in several issues of the Spokesman-Review the following ad headed “Durkin’s -- Be in at the Death”  

“I have more whiskies to dispose of between this time and the first of the year than any three wholesale dealers on the Pacific Coast, except Craig of San Francisco. … I have a bargain table of imported and domestic liquors and wines in each house [his three saloons]. … Write for my wholesale quantity close-out list” (Durkin’s).

Opulence and One Last Drink

On December 23 the society page of the Spokane Daily Chronicle stated that 1,500 reservations had been made at major hotels and restaurants. The article devoted three columns to listing all the notables who had reserved tables to celebrate the New Year in the enormous and opulent assembly rooms of the Davenport Hotel. The hotel had opened on September 1, 1914, and just before that date, had received the first Spokane saloon license for the year. However, with impending prohibition, owner Louis Davenport (1868-1951) “made it very clear to his employees that his establishment would uphold both the spirit and the letter of the law, and any violation would be grounds for immediate discharge” (Bamonte, 189). One can assume that all spirits ceased flowing by midnight on New Years Eve of 1915 at the Davenport.

The article describing the Davenport celebration mostly avoided the subject of Prohibition, which surely must have been on everyone’s minds. The paper simply reported:   

"The Spokane, Athletic and University clubs will have no formal celebration at their respective club houses on New Years Eve. Heretofore the Spokane Club has been a participant in the New Year’s Eve celebrations, but this year the board of managers decided to close all club social activities with the ‘wine auction’ last night” (Spokane Society, 10).

Slaking Thirst

The clubs’ decisions not to hold their own New Year's Eve parties must have contributed to the 1,500 reservations at the Davenport and other hotels. And no doubt the wine auction would ensure at least a temporary private household supply for the affluent members of those clubs.

By one means or another, Spokane residents, whether rich or poor, would manage to slake their thirst during the years of Prohibition.

Sources: Tony Bamonte and Suzanne Schaeffer Bamonte, Spokane’s Legendary Davenport Hotel (Spokane: Tornado Creek Publications, 2001), 189; Norman N. Clark, The Dry Years: Prohibition and Social Change in Washington (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1965); “Dry Law Upheld,” Spokane Daily Chronicle, December 10, 1915, p. 1; “Spokane Society Folks to Celebrate Coming of New Year at Restaurants,” Spokane Daily Chronicle, December 23, 1915, p. 10; “Sober New Years Day in Prospect,” Spokane Daily Chronicle, December 2, 1915; “Carousing Will Bring Down Law,” Spokane Daily Chronicle, December 14, 1915; “Durkin’s -- Be in at the Death,” Spokesman-Review, November 14, 1915, 6; “Casks and Cases of Rare Old Wines, Worth a Fortune, Still in Stock of Spokane Barroom,” Spokesman-Review, November 14, 1915, p. 7; Historylink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Prohibition in Washington State,” (by Paula Becker) and “Durkin, James” (by Peter Blecha), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed December 15, 2010).

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