A grinding, screeching, honking orchestra of 140,000 cars per day crosses over the old skeleton of Long Wharf, New Haven’s oldest pier. This remnant of the city’s economic heyday, when it was a West Indian trading port, sits buried below countless tons of fill excavated from New Haven’s tenements, banks and factories, as well as mud dredged from the harbor, during the 1950s and 60s.
Despite all of that upheaval, present-day Long Wharf still harkens to its past. The replica schooners Quinnipiack and Amistad take daytime and sunset cruises seasonally, joined by the usual quacking ducks or squawking gulls or honking geese. The city also provides docking and mooring services for those looking to perch their own vessels in its waters. Pretty soon Long Wharf will be joined by one of its long-missing smaller sibling wharfs, Canal Dock, as well as a new boathouse with educational and recreational missions.
When Long Wharf was truly a long wharf, it stretched three-quarters of a mile long, claimed at the time to be the longest in the country. The Custom House sat at the quay’s base on West Water Street, with warehouses and shops lining the rest of its linear run. The wharf had replaced the old West Creek Wharf, which stood near present-day College and George Streets. (That site was the original landing spot of the first English Puritans to set foot here.) Once Long Wharf was operational, merchants’ demands for more rum, molasses, silver and spices caused the need for the site to keep growing.
At the time, the only man who could actually build Long Wharf was William Lanson, a runaway black slave who, in 1798, fled a life of enslavement in Southington with just the clothes on his back and his favorite fiddle. But Lanson wasn’t fiddling around: against enormous odds, he became one of the most prominent contractors in the city. In 1810, he was the only contractor capable of extending Long Wharf hundreds of feet into the shallow mud flats of the harbor.
Lanson realized that building the wharf in the standard way—relying on wooden pier structures alone—wouldn’t work in the goopy, clam chowder-like harbor floor. To create a more stable foundation, Lanson quarried stone from East Rock and brought the boulders to the Mill River, where his crew transported them via special “scows,” or flat-bottomed boats, to the wharf site, creating the longest pier in the country at the time. Incidentally, a similar method of piling rock was used in recent highway construction on I-95.
His success with Long Wharf and other projects around town afforded him an extraordinary status in the community, earning the nickname “King Lanson.” He converted an old slaughterhouse on East Street into the Liberian Hotel, a well-liked “hostelry,” to use the parlance of the time. He also reconstructed old barns in the area into housing for Black and Irish families, dubbed New Liberia. He amassed real estate and developed a savvy reputation, owning $40,000 worth of property to go along with his various business interests. Not too shabby for anyone in the early 19th century, let alone a former slave.
King Lanson’s reign wouldn’t last forever, though. Despite the fact that he mostly housed the sick and poor in his own corner of town, bankers harboring racial resentment banded up to sully his reputation, foreclosing on his properties. Lanson’s willingness to offer integrated housing was clearly a factor in the targeting.
Lanson still had his fairer-minded supporters: city figureheads like Yale president Timothy Dwight and U.S. Senator James Hillhouse respected and publicly praised him. And Lanson continued to be acknowledged by many for his special talents: he was hired to build Basin Wharf, Steamboat Wharf and Tomlinson Bridge, all large visible projects that benefitted the entire city. Lanson carried on a livery stable, clothing store and rooming house at Long Wharf as well.
The specter of societal prejudice never left him alone for long, though. In the 1840s, the city jailed him numerous times for unproven rooming house violations. In 1845, his son Isaac Lanson wrote a pamphlet pleading for his father’s release.
Then, on April 23, 1848, a boarder in William Lanson’s house murdered another occupant. Blaming Lanson, the city sued him for keeping a “resort of the idle and vicious,” again landing him in jail.
For Lanson, it was a final straw of sorts. On October 9 that year, he published a pamphlet, Book of Satisfaction Addressed to the Public, to vindicate his name. In it, Lanson mentioned that he had been jailed 450 days over a six-year period for various unproven crimes.
He died poor and destitute on May 29, 1851, in the Alms House at the head of Edgewood Avenue. After overcoming the horrors of slavery and racism, and the jealousy and misunderstanding of the community at large, Lanson received a final high note of recognition in the local newspaper’s obituary, which read, “He was endowed by nature with more than a common mind.”
New Haveners at the time may not have known how true that was, but we do.
Written by Colin Caplan. Image (depicting Long Wharf in the distance circa 1868) provided by Colin Caplan.