How a Floating Speakeasy Ended Up at the Bottom of a Michigan Lake

During Prohibition, a timber barge was converted into an unlawful dance hall

An aerial photo of Lake Charlevoix in Michigan where a Prohibition-era floating speakeasy called the "Keuka" sunk
You'll never guess what's sitting just 15 feet below the surface of Lake Charlevoix...
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0

When we look back on the heyday of Prohibition, it can be staggering to see the lengths to which the purveyors of alcohol went to reach drinkers — and the ways in which they endeavored to keep illicit drinking out of the public eye. This retrospective mode has led to things like a Prohibition-themed video game at Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry. It also prompted one man to dive into the depths of a Michigan lake in search of one of the region’s most notorious relics of the era: a floating speakeasy.

The diver in question is a Traverse City, Michigan, resident named Chris Roxburgh. A new article in Smithsonian Magazine chronicles Roxburgh’s trips into Lake Charlevoix in search of the wreck of the Keuka. The story details the vessel’s life, which began decades before Prohibition when it was initially used as a timber barge.

As the article details, the purchase of the ship in 1928 changed things, and led to the vessel being converted to a floating dance hall and roller-skating rink. At least, that’s what was advertised.

“Management said it was going to be used just as a roller-skating rink, but they were lying,” Roxburgh told Smithsonian. Instead, the ship was an aquatic speakeasy, offering paying customers access not just to alcohol (which was potentially supplied by Al Capone), but slot machines too.

The Keuka made its first voyage under this new configuration in late 1929, and continued taking passengers on booze-filled journeys until 1932, when the ship sank. It’s remained at the bottom of the lake for over 90 years now, though, as the Kansas City Star reports, the tallest parts of the ship are only 15 feet below the surface of the water. There’s probably a historical metaphor to be found there, if you’re so inclined.

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