When Rumrunners Ruled (Part 3)


Three years earlier, in 1921, Paul Pane and Tom Murphy began their bootlegging operations at Princeton-by-the-Sea, some four miles north of Half Moon Bay. With the collapse of the Ocean Shore Railroad, Princeton was a failed resort and some residents were ready for any kind of business.

Overlooking Princeton Bay for many years was the Patroni House, a seafood and Italian restaurant owned by Giovanni Patroni. Fishing boats docked at the nearby wharf, also called “Patroni’sâ€?.

Born in Genoa, Italy in 1878, Giovanni, the son of farmers, learned the hotel business in San Francisco before moving to Princeton in the early 1900s. Patroni also formed a partnership with El Granada artichoke farmer Dante Dianda. Together they owned 400 acres.

In 1921 when Patroni was 43-years-old, bootlegger Thomas Murphy approached the restaurant owner, convincing him to let his wharf be used to unload illegal liquor.

A few months later, in the fall, fishing boats delivered $60,000 worth of illegal whiskey from Vancouver to Patroni’s Wharf. Tipped off about the shipment, agents led by Mobile Prohibition Supervisor John Exnicios raided the Patroni House, confiscating thousands of dollars of bonded liquor.

Arrested for violating the Volstead (Prohibiton) Act, Giovanni Patroni confessed that he was a member of a bootlegging ring smuggling thousands of dollars worth of high-grade whiskey into Princeton. Patroni was released on bond in return for testifying before the grand jury he received immunity.

The information Exnicios extracted from Patroni made him optimistic that booze smuggling on the San Mateo County Coastside had been smashed.

…to be continued…

(Photo: San Mateo County History Museum. Visit the museum at the historic Redwood City Courthouse)

When Rumrunners Ruled (Part 2)


It was dark and the bootlegger Paul Pane was standing with his men on an isolated beach near Ano Nuevo. His job was to signal the Canadian vessel, Prince Albert, with a flashlight, using a special code to give the all clear sign—allowing the skiffs aboard the rumrunner to sail through the surf with cases of illegal booze destined for Half Moon Bay and San Francisco.

But the night didn’t feel right. Pane sensed something was wrong; even some of his men were acting peculiarly. For whatever reason, Pane and his partner, Tom Murphy, the last of the old line of bootleggers, smelled serious trouble at Ano Nuevo in 1924.

Without apparent warning, the pair bolted, leaving so fast that Pane abandoned his suit jacket with the secret code book still inside. Pane and Murphy escaped to Santa Cruz. They had little choice as the Half Moon Bay Road, present day Highway 92, was closed for repairs.

Pane’s instincts were on target. Minutes after the two rum barons departed from Ano Nuevo, armed men raided the South Coast smuggling operation, a seaside ranch belonging to J.F. Steele. (Steele had been “convincedâ€? into cooperating with the bootleggers). Embarrassed and frightened, Steele was arrested, then released on his own recognizance. Other men were also arrested, two of them Pane-Murphy gang members who were later killed in a shootout with hijackers in Los Angeles. Also taken into custody was Steele’s employee, Teamster Joseph Soto.

Collecting evidence at the crime scene, Prohibition Director Rutter gathered bottles of the Canadian Club whiskey for testing by the government’s chemical analyst. Rutter also took into evidence Paul Pane’s coat jacket with the bootlegger’s name stitched inside. Reaching into that coat pocked, Rutter pulled out the prized secret signal code book. Flipping through it, he realized he had the key to all the bootlegger’s flashlight codes: wait; delay all clear; danger; get out; return tomorrow; return to San Francisco; return to ship; and go to Santa Cruz.

Paul Pane and Thomas Murphy were declared fugitives from justice for violating the Volstead [Prohibition] Act. A manhunt for them in the Santa Cruz Mountains turned up nothing. Pane and Murphy had escaped, perhaps as far north as Canada.

—to be continued–

When Rumrummers Ruled (Part I)

princetonpier.jpg (Photo: The pier at Princeton-by-the-Sea)

When the San Mateo County Coastside was identified as a major depot of smuggled Canadian whiskey during Prohibition., pioneer liquor buccaneers Paul Rubio Pane and Thomas Murphy called themselves exporters—but they were hardened professional bootleggers who needed the cooperation of locals to unload hundreds of cases of illegal booze on isolated Half Moon Bay and Pescadero beaches.

Destined for thirsty customers in San Francisco, the whiskey earned Pane, Murphy and their rum-running masters huge profits.

By 1924 Paul Pane and Thomas Murphy had been using South Coast farmer J.F. Steele’s Ano Nuevo seaside ranch as their home base for more than a year. They often ate breakfast at Steele’s place south of the Pigeon Point lighthouse and might have passed as locals. But they took their orders from the notorious Joe Parente. Headquartered in Vancouver, British Columbia, Parente was the king of all the Pacific Coast rumrunners.

After convincing Steele to collaborate with them, Pane and Murphy established a routine. Electricity had not yet reached the Pescadero on the South Coast—and in the evening the road was eerily dark.

Pane and Murphy supervised the nighttime loading of 100 proof-plus Canadian Club whiskey onto trucks—liquor delivered secretly to a secluded beach cove by two small skiffs.

The operation went smoothly until the spring of 1924. As 240 cases of illicit whiskey were being loaded onto trucks, Paul Pane’s sixth sense alerted him to trouble—and trouble usually meant the police. He even felt suspicious of his partner Thomas Murphy, the co-owner of the Prince Albert, a vessel registered in British Colombia.

As usual the Prince Albert’s final port of call was Ensenada, Mexico. Unless witnesses to a crime, the Coast Guard did not board vessels headed for ports outside of the United States. Packed with a full load of whiskey, the Prince Albert sailed south from Vancouver along the Pacific Coast, carefully observing the 3-mile limit near Steele’s Ano Nuevo ranch.

From his position on the beach, Paul Pane, using his secret code-book, signaled the Prince Albert with a flashlight, advising the vessel that it was all clear. A high-powered motorboat rendezvoused with the Prince Albert, taking on board the cases of liquor. From the motorboat, the cargo was transferred again to small skiffs that sailed through the surf and onto the cliff-lined beach. With the loud pounding of waves drowning out conversation, Pane stowed his flashlight, automatically slipping the secret code-book into his coat pocket.

—To be continued–

John Patroni Was Princeton’s “Padrone” During Prohibition Part II

In an earlier post I wrote about Mario Vellutini who worked for John Patroni, also known as “Big Daddy”. Patroni owned the aptly named Patroni House, a prohibition roadhouse that once stood where the Half Moon Bay Brewery is located today in Princeton. Not only was the Patroni House centrally located– but Mr. Patroni was a key figure, as in “the man”.

Patroni also took pride in the food he served and cleverly outwitted the competition.

“When the Prohibition agents headed for Patroni’s,” Mario Vellutini told me, “somebody called from Redwood City to warn him.” (Redwood City was and is the county government seat.)

Thus John Patroni avoided the stinging penalty of too many raids. A raid could also mean that a roadhouse– or “resort” owner like Patroni had failed to honor the custom of the time by making certain the appropriate officials got their regular “salary”.

“Patroni gave big meals at low prices,” Vellutini divulged, “and if people stayed for the weekend he gave them discounts.” Mario recalled seeing 500 people in Princeton at one times–a tremendous crowd. Those were the days when folks traveled to the Coastside to dine on the delicious local mussels.

Louis Miguel–whose father built the beautiful Palace Miramar Hotel, now gone–once told me his family’s restaurant “served mussels 12 months a year. There was no such thing as poison mussels like there is today.”

Until it was time to serve them, the shellfish were kept fresh in the ocean, held in sacks, tied with rope. Miguel said his family “never got the mussels until low tide. People nowadays get mussels up high where they get a lot of sun and moon and that’s what poisons them. But in those days we served them all year ’round and nobody got sick.”

The Patroni House building was owned by John Patroni but it was located on real estate belonging to Coastside landowner Henry Cowell. Cowell, recalled Mario Vellutini, kept raising Patroni’s rent, ultimately igniting a feud.

The “padrone” hit upon a plan to outwit Cowell and avoid the steep overhead by buying the adjacent property. One night, under cover of darkness, Patroni moved his entire building over to the the newly purchased land. Outraged, Cowell retaliated by building his own restaurant next door to Patroni’s.

But, chuckled Vellutini, “While people lined up to eat mussels at the Patroni House, nobody went to Cowell’s new place.”

Note: Mario gave me this photo. it’s of the beach between Miramar & El Granada and shows some men on motorbikes. mario.jpg

Princeton’s John Patroni Was Princeton’s “Padrone” During Prohibition

Larry_2.jpg Mario Vellutini in the front yard of his El Granada home.

I used to watch Mario Vellutini bending over in the fields bordering Highway 1 in El Granada. That’s where wild daisies the color of butter grew in abundance, waist-high.

Wearing baggy gray trousers and a worn hat, the thin, pale old man searched for clumps of wild mushrooms where the ground was rich. For dinner he cooked them with chicken, country Italian style.

One day while Mario was gathering mushrooms I went to talk to him. I hoped he would tell me secrets about Prohibition, when the Coastside was home to shadowy figures, rumrunners and bootleggers– and a madam or two who called the shots.

He didn’t disappoint.

(A little history about Mario: He was 17 when he left his home in Italy in 1913 for Half Moon Bay–where he got to know every Coastside field, working on ranches from Pescadero to Montara.)

He delighted me when he talked about his close relationship with John Patroni, a powerful man during Prohibition. Patroni owned the popular Princeton restaurant called the Patroni House–the old roadhouse was torn down in the 1950s and today the Half Moon Bay Brewing Co. stands near the site.


Some people called the husky Patroni “the padrone” for he was the boss of Princeton-by-the-Sea in the 1920s and 1930s when the sale, possession, and drinking of any kind of alcohol/liquor/whiskey was illegal.

(Can you imagine enforcing this one?)

John Patroni was the Coastside padrone but Mario Vellutini, who, when he was in his early 20s lived at the Patroni House, called the padrone, “Big Daddy.” John Patroni was the kingpin and a wealthy rumrunner, Mario Vellutini, who lived at the Patroni House, told me.

A narrow thoroughfare separated Patroni’s lively roadhouse from what is known today as Pillar Point Harbor but in the 1920s the high seas weren’t interrupted by a breakwater system. During Prohibition rumrunners used the pier across the way to unload whiskey at night.

Mario worked for Big Daddy, and rumor has it that Vellutini watched out for the best interests of his boss, making certain that nobody was cheating him.

Those were heady times for the Coastside, famous up until then for the endless fields of artichokes. But the artichokes took a back seat to Half Moon Bay which became better known as one of the biggest supplier of illegal booze on the West Coast.

When the Prohibition agents headed for Patroni, the 81-year-old Vellutini said, somebody called from Redwood City to warn him.

Thus John Patroni avoided the stinging penalty of too many raids. A raid could also mean that a roadhouse or a owner like Patroni had failed to honor the custom of the time by making sure the appropriate officials got their regular “salary.”

To be continued.

Princeton-By-The-Sea: Funky Fishing Village South Of The Slide…


When two flamboyant brothers moved into the Princeton Inn in the 1970s, these outsiders fired-up the fishing village next door, setting the stage for a showdown.

Of all the unique little corners on the Coastside, Princeton was the most authentic and freewheeling.

A jumble of bleached wood huts, worn-out boats, rusted metal and steel, that was Princeton-by-the-Sea. Year-after-year I’d see the same old boats on pilings and the lack of change was strangely reassuring.

Building regulations were lax and county officials not exactly welcome. Princeton had its own by-laws and an unofficial mayor and things had been done in a certain way for decades. If you fit in, you could claim any old cubbyhole and move in.

The Coastsiders really loved this charming place. There were more characters per square inch in Princeton than Pescadero or San Gregorio combined.

(Be patient—I’m coming back to the brothers).

Life was governed by high and low tides and phases of the moon, and when not in a fishing boat, walking was the way to get around. A couple of fishermen-friendly restaurants and bars were within a stone’s throw, also a country store.

There were a few old homes in the fishing village, the quaint kind, needing repairs from roof to foundation—in fact, one nice two-story home belonged to an engineer and his postal employee wife who later on would win the lottery, pack their bags and bid goodbye to Princeton. By today’s standards, their home could qualify as an historic point of interest.

In those simpler times, I would take long, leisurely walks from El Granada to Moss Beach with Peyote and Scorpio, my two dogs. One time when I passed through Princeton I saw an old school bus parked near the beach and a young hippie girl with flowers in her hair invited me inside for a cup of tea.

She lived in the bus and was proud of her pretty seashell collection. We sipped some tea, exchanged some gossip and I was on way.

In the 1970s discos were the rage—and the two flamboyant brothers wanted to open one so they bought the Princeton Inn. It was to be their showpiece and they hired the best young local carpenters and craftsmen to help them build their dream.

Big, bold racing stripes appeared on the outer walls of the Princeton Inn and a string of bulbs lit up the lovely arches at night.

The brothers were city dudes, flashy guys, in sharp contrast to the locals. Long before Johnny Cash, both favored black clothing, head to toe, leather jackets, even black gloves. One brother drove an expensive, shiny black Porsche, the other rode a high-powered black motorcycle.

Boy, did these guys pick the wrong place.

Early on the newcomers were in constant conflict with the locals.

One July, around the fourth, I walked over to Princeton. It was clear there was trouble in the air.

What was happening?

The local story was that the brothers had failed to make their mortgage payments and a new buyer was lurking in the wings. But the brothers weren’t giving up easily and they barricaded themselves inside the Princeton Inn. The replacement owner was a woman who had curried favor with the locals and pressure was mounting to run the brothers out of town.

It was a stalemate.

Then suddenly I witnessed the brother with the Porsche jump in and roar away—but there was no sign of the other brother. The biker’s getaway wasn’t as pain-free. He did finally make his escape but not until he got a couple of lumps by the locals.


Photo: Princeton Inn
Watercolor, Scene at Princeton, believed to be by Coastside artist Galen Wolf

Will This Win Any Architectural Awards?

Isn’t it a bit large? Big, compared to the surroundings?

… As a great man (my boyfriend, Burt) has said: “If you hang long enough, you’ll get used to it.” In other words we humans can get used to anything–but should have to?