From Prohibition port to modern metropolis

William M. Dowd photos

Detroit skyscrapers seen from Windsor, Ontario's Dieppe Gardens.

WINDSOR, Ontario -- At one time Detroiters walked across the frozen Detroit River to get to work at the Hiram Walker distillery in Walkerville. That, however, wasn't the only unusual way people arrived in a town that grew to become part of the sprawling modern metropolis of Windsor.

Walker, born in 1814 in Massachusetts but a Detroiter from the 1830s until his death in 1899, purchased farmland on the Ontario side of the river that lies southeast of Detroit. He eventually created such a viable business he was frequently under scrutiny by governments on both sides of the international border. Liquor distilling leads to such attention.

The Hiram Walker office, modeled after an Italian palace.

After moving his fledgling whisky business from Detroit, where he produced his first barrels in 1854, he had an office complex, modeled on the Pandolfini Palace in Florence, Italy, built on the river bank. He also secretly had a tunnel dug under the river to allow him -- or anyone he wanted to include -- unfettered access to both countries. Decades later when the river was dredged to allow larger shipping, the tunnel was filled in although one entrance remains visible in the Canadian Club Heritage Center open to visitors adjacent to the company's distillery which produces the world's top-selling Canadian whisky.

Walker also founded a flour mill, a railroad, cattle and hog farms, and a wagon factory that became a Ford automotive plant. At one time he employed almost the entire Walkerville population of 600, and housed them in comfortable yet inexpensive Walker-owned cottages and paid them with company money.

This epitome of a company town was the catalyst for the growth of the Windsor metropolitan area from an agricultural area to a multi-faceted one that today is Canada's automotive manufacturing leader, and includes legal gambling, several performing arts centers, miles of pristine riverfront parks, and numerous historic sites.

Casino Windsor was an instant hit when it opened in 1998, with Americans streaming across the Ambassador Bridge or through the Detroit-Windsor tunnel to visit the full-service gambling complex. The 21-story AAA Four-Diamond Award resort was so popular, in fact, that Detroit authorized the building of three casinos to try keeping dollars at home.

Despite that counter measure, Casino Windsor continues to thrive, helped no little by the fact that Canada does not tax casino winnings. The province-owned facility, operated by the Harrah's company, will be renamed Caesars Windsor next year. In addition, Windsor has a string of legal bingo halls offering healthy cash prizes.

Windsor, which in the 20th century grew markedly by a series of annexations, is Canada's southernmost city, lying further down on the globe than such U.S. cities as Albany, New York, Buffalo, Minneapolis, Seattle, Portland and Boston. It has a metro population of about 335,000. Its growth reached beyond the riverside to the shores of adjacent Lake St. Clair, making today's metro Windsor wider than it is deep.

It began in 1748 as a French agricultural settlement. Thus, it is the oldest continually inhabited settlement in Canada west of Montreal. That also explains the many French place names that permeate the community. In 1749, under British rule, it became known as Sandwich and a short time later was renamed Windsor, after the town in Berkshire, England.

The metro area has been used to a thriving local economy for generations. Today, despite a steady influx of tourists -- including young weekenders from the U.S. attracted by the minimum drinking age of 19 -- Windsorites are antsy about the future. The looming office towers of automotive giants on both sides of the river are reminders that the financial woes of the U.S. and Canadian auto industry are having a trickle down effect on the region, not only in layoffs but in the money that flows to other businesses.

Dan Tullio, an executive with Canadian Club, notes: "It's a bit of a troubling time. The problems with the auto industry certainly are having an effect on the economy and on predictions for the future. Luckily, some other areas, like tourism and distilling, are continuing to be strong components."

Nevertheless, even in the presence of those towers it is easy to forget finances as one strolls along the Dieppe Gardens and other greenbelt areas of the riverside.

A fleet of racing sailboats comes out of Lake St. Clair on the final leg.

Runners, bicyclists, dog walkers and other dot the pathways as a pleasant summer breeze wafts in from the river. Most nights the water is alive with power and sail boats, and on some nights sailing regattas race from the river northeast into Lake St. Clair and back, creating a living seascape painting as the sun glances off the brilliant white of the sails and seabirds dodge the sailboats as they dive for fish.

As if to emphasize its southern location and accompanying hot summers (temperatures in the low 90s are not uncommon), metro Windsor makes much of its boating, beaches and gardens for tourists and residents alike. Colasanti's Tropical Gardens in nearby Kingsville is a year-round operation offering exotic plant gardens, as well as tropical birds and animals, a petting zoo, miniature golf, and lush greenhouses.

And, as benefit its attraction to the nightlife set, a wide variety of venues abound. A few examples: Boom Boom Room and Dante's Dance Bar (open till 5 in the morning Fridays and Saturdays) on Ouellette Avenue, and the upscale Dean Martini's on Pitt Street East; strolling Gypsy musicians at the Blue Danube Hungarian restaurant on Ottawa Street; live Italian and Latin music every night at Brigantino's Italian restaurant on Erie Street East.

Just as it is today, the Windsor area has long been inextricably connected to events in the U.S. It was a prominent part of the Underground Railroad, that celebrated clandestine pathway for escaped slaves from the American South to go north to freedom. Several sites in Windsor and environs are museums to the movement and Windsorites' role in it, particularly the Sandwich First Baptist Church National Historic Site -- built in 1851 to accommodate the growing number of refugee slaves -- and the John Freeman Walls Historic Site and Underground Railroad Museum built and operated by the descendants of escaped slaves from North Carolina.

For a mix of history and current commerce, two local beverage institutions are must-see stops: The Walkerville Brewing Co., a revival of a onetime iconic local brewery that was at its height in the 19th century, and the Canadian Club/Hiram Walker complex. Both offer public tours, the brewery for free, the CC facility for $5.

Prohibition-era Canadian Club whisky knockoffs.

As noted, Hiram Walker had begun making and selling whisky in Detroit, but when temperance groups begain gaining popularity he made his Ontario land purchase and then moved his operations there when Michigan began to go dry in the 1850s. Walker was dead 20 years by the time national Prohibition became the law of the U.S. in 1919, but his descendants had continued the success of the whisky that became known as Canadian Club and weren't interested in letting anti-alcohol law slow them down. Continued success came despite numerous imitators who produced inferior whiskies with knockoff labels bearing such names as Canadian Pub, Canadian Love and Canadian Cove.

Many examples of these wannabes' work are on display at the Canadian Club Brand Heritage Centre on Riverside Drive East, Walker's plush headquarters of intricate carved woods, one-of-a-kind marble fireplaces in each office, period furnishings, artwork and artifacts. It is here that original handwritten records document some of the Walker family's most interesting business activities.

While the company liked to brag that it had provided whisky by appointment to British royalty, it became better known during Prohibition for supplying the likes of Al Capone, the infamous Chicago gangster who was a frequent visitor to the Walker distillery. His name appears regularly in records. His influence, however, extends even further. In addition to legal customers -- still allowed because Canada did not have Prohibition, Canadian Club flowed to American and Canadian whisky runners of all stripes, Capone being the most high-profile of them all.

It is part of local conventional wisdom that one church with a high tower overlooking the river has two different colored stained glass windows which, when lit, acted as "go" or "no go" signals for Capone's men when they showed up to load Canadian Club onto their boats or trucks. Seems only fair since Capone paid for the creation and installation of the windows. It is not known who was responsible for the bullet holes still visible in the brick wall of a downstairs room in the mansion, but daily gunfire was not uncommon in Prohibition-era Windsor.

Eluding the long arm of the law required cunning as well as stealth. An elaborate system of coded writing did the trick, allowing telegrams (as seen here) containing what looked like random letters to be sent between supplier and buyer.

"The public can see a whole series of those coded messages, and the decoding guides, as well as bills of sale with some pretty interesting names and messages," said Leah Peck, a Heritage Center staff member. "It can really give you some insight into the period."

It certainly can. As I took a behind-the-scenes tour of the complex, center manager Tish Harcus couldn't restrain herself from sharing one particular ledger entry:

"Look at this," she said, still as pleased with it as the first time she showed it off. "It says we no longer were pursuing the money owed to the company by Mr. (deleted) because we think he was put in the incinerator. As best we could tell, he owed money to everyone and when the debt collectors couldn't find him, they assumed the worst since that's what often happened."


Windsor Social Magazine (monthly)
Canadian Club tasting notes
City of Windsor official site
John Freeman Walls Underground Railroad Site
Colisanti's Tropical Gardens

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