Prohibition in Washington State was a Disappointing Failure

Prohibition in Washington State seemed to have a bright future. Residents had long supported temperance. They had adopted statewide prohibition in 1916. This was before National Prohibition (1920-1933). But many Washingtonians weren’t going to let others stop them from enjoying a drink.

Roy Olmstead

prohibition in washington
Roy Olmstead while a police officer.

Important in helping meet the demand for alcohol was Roy Olmstead. He had joined the Seattle Police Department in 1907. From there he quickly rose to become sergeant in 1910. He was active in many arrests of bootleggers and rumrunners. There saw how disorganized their operations were. He knew that bootlegging could be very profitable if well organized and operated.

Olmsted began his own bootleg operation as a side-line. He was soon arrested and lost his job. Then he turned to bootlegging full-time. Within a short time, Olmstead’s business became one of Puget Sound’s largest employers. He hired office workers, bookkeepers, collectors, and salesmen. On his payroll were dispatchers, warehouse workers, mechanics, drivers, rum running crews, and legal counsel. He chartered a fleet of vessels and owned a fleet of vehicles. He even bought a farm to cache the liquor. Before long, Roy Olmstead’s organization was delivering 200 cases of Canadian liquor to the Seattle area daily. He  was grossing about $200,000 a month. That would be about $2,400,000 today.

An informant led to Olmstead’s arrest in 1924. But others quickly took his place and bootlegging continued uninterrupted.

Prohibition Caused Serious Problems

prohibition in Washington
Prohibition in Washington was a sad failure.

We might look back now at Prohibition as a colorful period in our past. But its effects were ugly. It caused widespread corruption of law enforcement officers and others.  That led to a lack of respect for Prohibition in particular and law in general.

It became fashionable for women, for the first time in history, to drink. It also created an undesirable pattern of drinking. People drank less often but much more heavily. They didn’t go to a speakeasy to enjoy a drink leisurely with a meal. They but to guzzle alcohol while it was available.

The alcohol often had lead toxins from careless production.  Makers sometimes added creosote for color. They sometimes added embalming fluid to give it more “kick.” Consumers sometimes suffered paralysis, blindness or even death.


Residents came to realize that Prohibition in Washington threatened health and safety, reduced morality, and led to widespread crime. That it promoted violence and undesirable drinking patterns. Prohibition was ineffective. It was also counterproductive – worse than doing nothing.

Washington voters first repealed state prohibition in 1932. Then they ratified Repeal of National Prohibition.

Learn more about Prohibition in Washington State

Broderick, H. Prohibition Seattle Style. Seattle: Dogwood , 1968.

Clark, N. The Dry Years. Prohibition and Social Change in Washington.  Seattle: U Wash Press, 1965.

Lonsdale, A. Rumrunners on Puget Sound. Am West, 1972, 9(6), 28-33.

Mayers, G. The Ku Klux Klan in Bellingham, 1900-1935. J Whatcom County Hist Soc, 2001. OCLC #49429979. (The KKK was a major defender of prohibition.)

Metcalfe, P.  Whispering Wires. Portland: Inkwater, 2007. (Story of Roy Olmstead.)

Moore, S. Bootleggers and Borders. Lincoln: U Neb Press, 2014.

Parker, M. and Tyrrell, B.  Rumrunner. The Life and Times of Johnny Schnarr. Seattle: Orca, 1988.  (Schnarr was a successful Puget Sound rumrunner.)

Prohibition Party Campaign Text-book for the State of Washington. Tacoma: Prohibition Party.