The Cave Bar at the Omni Mount Washington Resort in New Hampshire. During Prohibition it was of the more famous speakeasies in northern New England.
Photo Credit : Courtesy Omni Mt. Washington Resort
When Prohibition became the law of the land on January 17, 1920, the nationwide ban on making and selling alcohol was intended to cut down on Americans’ drinking. But in part, its actual effect was something else entirely. Rather than hang up their highball glasses, alcohol purveyors created illicit, under-the-radar bars dubbed “speakeasies” — and one of our favorite surviving examples can be found at New Hampshire’s famed grand hotel the Omni Mount Washington.
So how did The Cave and other speakeasies come to be? And where did the booze come from?
Almost immediately after the ban on alcohol went into effect, law enforcement found itself ill-equipped to enforce such a widespread mandate. In New England, homes, restaurants, shops, and even drugstores became speakeasies. Connecticut had some 1,500 speakeasies, with 400 in New Haven alone. It was much the same in Maine, where most alcohol sales had been banned since 1846 and citizens had perfected the art of flouting the rules.
Much of the alcohol served in New England speakeasies came from Canada and from seafaring rum runners. In New Hampshire, a goodly amount flowed into what is now known as the Omni Mount Washington Resort in Bretton Woods.
During Prohibition, the hotel’s elite guests — typically Bostonians escaping the city for the fresh air (and maybe less stringent law enforcement) of the White Mountains — could drink cocktails in a basement bar known as The Cave. Originally a squash court, the space was actually converted into a bar before Prohibition, but thanks to its sequestered location, it not only continued to operate but also became one of northern New England’s most sought-after watering holes. (Joseph Kennedy is even said to have sold bootlegged liquor to the hotel.)
The secret nature of the bar permeated virtually every part of its operation. There was a trapdoor, for instance, where workers supposedly stored whiskey. A stash of teacups allowed guests to easily dump their liquor and replace it with something more innocuous in case the bar was raided. In one wall was a brick that could be easily removed to give a view of the road below and any approaching law enforcement.
The arrival of the automobile era, changing vacation habits, and a few devastating fires combined to drastically alter the “grand hotel” landscape, but somehow the Mount Washington endured. As it did, it welcomed many famous guests, from Winston Churchill to Alfred Hitchcock to Princess Margaret. A young Bob Hope performed there. In 1944, the hotel hosted the Bretton Woods Conference, a gathering of delegates from 44 nations to establish rules for the post–World War II international monetary system.
In recent years there’s been a renewed interest in speakeasy culture. Modern bars inspired by the secret watering holes of Prohibition have popped up around New England, often featuring disguised storefronts or requiring passwords to gain entry.
This also means a new generation of fans for The Cave, which hardly shies away from its history: The establishment offers a rum-spiked “Prohibition punch,” served in its signature teacups, and often hosts ragtime dance parties, speakeasy celebrations, and even Prohibition-era “raids.”
“It’s a cultural thing,” said Craig Clemmer, the Mount Washington’s marketing director. “From The Godfather to Boardwalk Empire, we have this romanticized vision of the era that people can’t get enough of. But they also want authenticity, and that’s what makes the Mount Washington so special. You can come here and walk the same spots that the Rockefeller and Vanderbilts once did. It’s not a hotel built to look like it comes from that era—it’s from that era, and The Cave really brings that out for people.”