Pipes in the attic, police across the street: The story of Petersburg’s not-so-secret speakeasy

Posted at 12:43 PM, Dec 04, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-04 12:44:18-05

PETERSBURG, Va. -- It’s been 100 years since Congress passed the Volstead Act, ushering in a dry spell in this country by making Prohibition the law of the land.

Of course, that gave rise to a number of illegal drinking establishments in cities across the country. But while most associate the Roaring ‘20s with places like New York and Chicago, banned booze also flowed through Petersburg.

One of the city’s most notorious speakeasys was located at 12 West Bank Street, in the building that housed the old Hiram Haines’ Coffee House, which opened its doors in the 1820s. It’s also the place where Edgar Allan Poe spent his honeymoon in 1836.

But in the 1920s, it started to attract a lot more than just newlyweds and java seekers.

“There was a speakeasy, and the liquor was kept in the attic,” said Dulaney Ward, historian and longtime Petersburg resident. “There were pipes that came down to pour the liquor."

A brilliant operation, to be sure, but also a brazen one, considering that the speakeasy was quite literally operating right under the nose of John Law.

“They were directly across the street,” said Ward, referencing the fact that Petersburg Police headquarters was located at 15 West Bank during Prohibition. “When the police raided, the just pulled the pipes up.”

“I didn't know it had been a speakeasy, so it's kind of fun to think about,” said Richard Blankenship, who purchased the old Haines building in 2016. “We'd stop in here several times for coffee and stuff and I thought this place was fantastic."

Decades before Prohibition, another anti-alcohol movement began in this area.

“There was a temperance movement for years,” said Ward.

Really, there were two movements. One was spearheaded by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the other by the Anti-Saloon League, which was made up of men. Though they were technically separate organizations, both groups had the same goal.

“Try to convince people that drink was bad,” said Dr. Gregg Kimball, the director of public services and outreach for the Library of Virginia.

And a lot of people were convinced, at least on Capitol Square. In 1916, Prohibition became a state law in Virginia.

“That’s well before national Prohibition comes along,” said Kimball. “So we are a little ahead of the curve there.''

Prohibition came to an end in 1933, but not everyone in the Old Dominion got the message.

“A lot of those restrictions continued well into the late 20th century,” said Kimball. “There are still some counties in Virginia that are technically dry."

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