Pier Review

This Juneteenth, we’re revisiting the tale of the former slave who would be King.

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A grinding, honking orchestra of an estimated 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.

When Long Wharf was its largest, it stretched for three quarters of a mile, 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 new wharf had replaced the West Creek Wharf, which stood near present-day College and George Streets. (That site was the original landing spot of the English Puritans who settled New Haven.) Once Long Wharf was operational, demand for more rum, molasses, silver and spices spurred the need for expansion.

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At the time, in 1810, there was only one contractor capable of extending the wharf hundreds and hundreds of feet into the shallow mud flats of New Haven Harbor: William Lanson, a runaway black slave who had escaped a life of servitude in Southington with just the clothes on his back and his prized fiddle. But Lanson wasn’t fiddling around. Against enormous odds, he became one of the most prominent contractors in the city.

Lanson realized that building the wharf in the standard way—relying on wooden pier structures alone—wouldn’t work in the goopy, 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 specialized “scows,” or flat-bottomed boats, to the wharf site. (Incidentally, a similar method of piling rock was used in recent highway construction on I-95.)

Lanson’s success with Long Wharf and other projects around town earned him local fame and 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 converted old barns in the area into housing for Black and Irish families, dubbed New Liberia, and carried on a livery stable, clothing store and rooming house at Long Wharf as well. Eventually, he amassed $40,000 worth of property to go with his other business interests. Not too shabby for anyone in the early 19th century, let alone a former slave.

Along the way, Lanson had prominent supporters—including aging city figureheads like Yale president Timothy Dwight and US Senator James Hillhouse—who respected and publicly praised him. He 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 with clear benefit to the city.

But King Lanson’s reign didn’t go unchallenged. As the city industrialized and real estate interest expanded outward from downtown, Lanson’s holdings made him—and the racially integrated neighborhood he’d helped create—a target. Looking for excuses to foreclose on his properties and convert them into a mix of industry and white worker housing, bankers and businessmen banded together to trip Lanson up and cast him as a man of low character. They enlisted the help of at least one city inspector, who, according to Lanson, would show up to his properties all too frequently, including in the middle of the night, hoping to find something unsavory to pin on the landlord. During the 1840s, the city jailed him numerous times for ostensible rooming house violations.

Then, on April 23, 1848, a boarder in William Lanson’s house murdered another occupant. Blaming the owner, the city sued him for keeping a “resort of the idle and vicious,” again landing him in jail. On October 9 that year, Lanson published a pamphlet, Book of Satisfaction Addressed to the Public, meant to vindicate his name. In it, he specified that he had been unfairly jailed for 450 days over a six-year period. All the while, “popular sources aggressively recast him as a purveyor of vice and disorder to black and white alike,” according to historian Peter Hinks.

After escaping enslavement, building an empire, contributing lasting works to his city and persevering against bigotry, Lanson died in destitution on May 29, 1851, in the Alms House at the head of Edgewood Avenue. An obituary in a local newspaper dripped with prejudice even as it ignored prejudice’s role in Lanson’s fate. He was a “very enterprising negro,” it said, “endowed by nature with more than a common mind,” whose fortunes turned sour because he was “inherently depraved.”

Today, at least, we know better.

Written by Colin Caplan. Updated by Dan Mims. Image, depicting Long Wharf in the distance circa 1868, provided by Colin Caplan and Magrisso Forte. The original version of this story was published on September 4, 2013.

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Colin M. Caplan is a New Haven native, published author, architectural designer, historian and owner of Taste of New Haven Food and Drink Tours. He received his Masters of Architecture from Tulane University, is an Arts Award recipient from the Arts Council of Greater New Haven and runs Magrisso Forte, which offers historic building consulting and vintage photography services.

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