Historic Speakeasy Prepares for 100th Anniversary of Prohibition

December 3, 2018
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Murphy’s Tavern co-owner and manager, Robb McMahon and business partner Heather Vena Racioppi enjoy sharing the nefarious past of Rumson’s historic speakeasy. Photo by Chris Rotolo

By Chris Rotolo |

RUMSON – Murphy’s Tavern on Ward Lane, which came to life as a secluded gin-mill speakeasy, is preparing to mark 100 years since Prohibition.

The saloon, located at the end of a driveway in a residential neighborhood, is a link to a nefarious moment in the Two River area’s past when smugglers and rumrunners navigated the twists and turns of the Navesink and Shrewsbury rivers using the cover of darkness to drop shipments of “wet goods” during the dry times of Prohibition-era America.

“Where this place is situated and the surrounding geography of the area is a huge part of why it was able to endure,” said Robb McMahon, who owns the bar with friend and business partner Heather Vena Racioppi.

They believe the underground speakeasy began illegally serving booze to law-breaking locals shortly after the 18th Amendment was ratified by a Utah in 1919. The business partners are planning a celebration to recognize the anniversary in the New Year.

The story of the once secret, subterranean saloon makes for good conversation and, during a Nov. 27 interview with The Two River Times, McMahon is enjoying the storytelling from behind an oak bar.

McMahon says if the surrounding residences weren’t blocking his shot, he’s fairly certain he could chuck a rock from the entrance of Murphy’s to the nearby riverfront. Or at least he could have back in his Little League days.

The entrance to what is now the borough’s public boat launch sits about 200 feet from the bar’s location, which is designated with a sign on the home’s cream colored siding reading “Murphy’s – Since Prohibition.”

In the basement of a Ward Lane residence near the Navesink River is Murphy’s Tavern, a former speakeasy. Photo by Chris Rotolo

The boat launch overlooks a naturally formed cove, with a marsh-covered island situated between the Rumson riverfront and a patch of Hartshorne Woods that includes a portion of Mount Mitchill’s scenic overlook.

“The coverage from the woods was key. The water access was key. Just look at what we have today in the Seastreak (Ferry). You’re in and out of New York City much quicker over the water than by rail. And when you’re doing something illegal, it’s a lot safer traveling by water,” McMahon added.

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In November 1918, the U.S. Congress passed a temporary Wartime Prohibition Act, banning the sale of beverages with an alcohol content greater than 1.28 percent. It was an attempt to preserve grain supplies for troops battling in World War I.

In December 1918 the U.S. Senate proposed the 18th Amendment, effectively establishing the prohibition of intoxicating liquors, followed by Congress passing the Volstead Act in October 1919, which defined those liquors and the penalties against those who produced and sold them.

By the time the country officially went dry Jan. 17, 1920, Murphy’s was well established near the banks of the Navesink.

The Ward Lane establishment was also a mere seven-minute stroll from the police station, then located on Center Street.

“Let’s just say, back then, the owners were only worried about the federal government knocking on their door and this was small potatoes compared to the likes Al Capone, Tommy Lucchese and Dutch Schultz. They weren’t really worried about the Murphy’s,” McMahon said. “But this wasn’t the only place to have an operation.”

In 1923 one man was shot and killed, six others were hospitalized and seven more were jailed following a gun fight on the streets of Atlantic Highlands between a band of bootleggers and a gang of highjacking rum pirates.

In 1924 George F. Grause was arrested in a raid with 20 other men for selling illegal spirits in the hidden backroom of a Red Bank haunt. Later that year the U.S. Coast Guard launched a sting operation off the coast of Monmouth Beach and seized a million dollars’ worth of product from a British vessel named the Frederick B.

Holmdel resident James Maher stored a whiskey still in his attic, accessed by a staircase behind a removable panel in the closet of his daughter’s bedroom at their Hop Brook Farm home. In 1923 he designed a process to transform cider from his family’s lush orchards into apple jack and laid out a drive-through pathway for locals to purchase a bottle at his backdoor and motor off without detection. The still was discovered in 1933, the year Prohibition was repealed.

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Vena-Racioppi said structurally and cosmetically the tavern has changed, but the partners have never wanted to create a caricature of the era. “The last cosmetic redo we did, we made sure not to make a Prohibition them park out of it like so many others in the area have. We didn’t have to do that,” she added.

Vena-Racioppi said originally the bar top ran along a wall where a 1950s shuffle board table now rests. The room itself was completely open back in the 1920s, with just a couple of booths located on the opposite wall.

The new bar top is an L-shape, opening much of the room up to patrons. Photos from the 1940s hang around the room, as does a jackelope head, a couple of dart boards and modern jukebox.

“This is a room that’s been around for about a century now. There wasn’t much we had to do, because it’s already from the Prohibition era. It’s already authentic. We just had to acknowledge the history and make it a little more accommodating in the process. People have responded really well,” Vena-Racioppi added.

The tavern serves handcrafted cocktails, wine by the glass and bottle, and both bottled and draft beer. They also have a small snack menu with pizza, bar items like pigs in a blanket, and specialty French fries, including the quintessentially New Jersey Pork Roll Fries, crispy strips of Taylor Ham served with ketchup and cheese sauce.

Murphy’s Tavern is open seven days a week from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. and features Friday happy hours from 6 to 8 p.m. with live music. They will be hosting a New Year’s Eve party Dec. 31 from 4 to 8 p.m. to coincide with the New Year in Dublin.

For more information on the New Year’s Eve party and other special events visit murphystavernrumson.com. The bar is located at 17 Ward Lane.


This article was first published in the Nov. 29 – Dec. 5, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.

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