History, when written and interpreted properly, has a way of enlightening and fascinating that is quite unlike any other social science discipline. The study of history probes, questions, validates and corrects.
The contributions of William Lanson, a once influential and prosperous contractor and member of New Haven Connecticut’s Black community, and who was best known as the individual responsible for extending New Haven’s Long Wharf between 1810 and 1812, have never benefited from history’s probing, questioning and corrective powers. The extension of the Long Wharf had a profound impact on New Haven’s development as a successful port town after 1812, and yet the expansion of the Wharf was, in and of itself, an accomplishment which earned William Lanson a place in the history of American engineering and construction in general, and in New Haven history in particular. However, William Lanson’s significance cannot be limited to the expansion of the Wharf because he was, as T.R. Trowbridge stated, “a respected man of energy and skill, and was a useful citizen . . . in his latter days, he fell into bad repute, but even then was a man receiving considerable respect for his previous worth.
He was capable of great things. “
Born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1776, this future master engineer was a descendant of the prestigious Lanson family that had been in Connecticut for four generations. A gap, however, exists between William Lanson’s recorded childhood history and the period which he came into his own in the field of engineering, roughly 1807. In Lanson’s
“Statement To The Public: The Trials and Tribulations of an Entrepreneur in the 1840”s in New Haven”
, he gives a brief history of his life, written in his own words, so that the public would know the truth concerning his endeavors. Lanson himself fails to mention his childhood and as a consequence we are required to begin by examining first, his most well known undertaking—the extension of New Haven’s Long Wharf in 1810.
Because New Haven was founded by commercial men, there was an initial consideration by town leaders to construct several small wharves. However, that consideration gave way to the idea of a united effort to build one wharf. This one wharf was to be a community effort as: “every male inhabitant of town between the ages of 16 and 60 would be given four days work towards building the wharf.” (5)
On November 23, 1663, the state government issued a grant to Sam Bach to build a wharf or dock at the lower end of Fleet street (present day lower State street). “This place eventually came into the possession of Mr. Jonathan Atwater, and may be considered as the first wharf built in the harbor . . . and this with the succeeding grant to Mr. Thomas Trowbridge (for the construction of a wharf at Fleet street may be regarded as the commencement of the Long Wharf).” (6)
There were a number of extensions to the “Union Wharf” as it was known until 1737. The first extension was built in 1731 when the Union Wharf Enterprise Company was established. This company’s name would change from Union Wharf to Long Wharf in 1737.
The wharf further grew under private ownership, but later experienced severe financial difficulties. The result was a General Assembly Charter in 1760 primarily because the number of persons with private financial interests had become too excessive, but also because there was no concrete plan to complete the extension, many investors lost faith in the extension of the wharf, and some of the initial investors had died.
Despite the failure of the private undertaking, the harbor was considered so vital to the potential prosperity of New Haven that town residents chipped in funds to supplement the money appropriated by the General Assembly in 1771 to extend the Wharf. The Long Wharf was once again extended in 1772.
The coming of the Revolutionary War further complicated the problem because as money became increasingly difficult to come by for people in America at that time, docking fees became even harder to collect. Many ships that arrived at the Long Wharf were either unwilling or unable to pay the docking fees required. In 1785, the General Assembly responded by prohibiting all vessels from docking in the Wharf until all their respective docking fees were paid in full. A short time later, the General Assembly drafted a proposal to offer the Wharf to the United States Government if it would maintain it. This initiative failed because the federal government was unwilling to accept financial responsibility for the facility.
For the next twenty five years, the issue of Wharf expansion increasingly caused frustration, disillusionment and impatience among New Haven residents, many of whom depended upon the Wharf for their personal and financial well-being.
By 1776 the Wharf had been extended, but it’s length still created major difficulties for ships. Because New Haven’s harbor was extremely shallow, larger ships carrying heavy cargo ran the risk of literally getting stuck in the harbor. As a consequence, ships were forced to anchor offshore where they were unloaded by lighter ships.
During the federal period, the Wharf was finally extended out to deep water. The engineer responsible for this difficult feat was William Lanson. Lanson began extending the Wharf in 1810 and “By 1812 the Wharf stretched 3480 feet into the harbor comprising the towns major commercial area and the longest Wharf in the U.S.” (7) It is believed that William Lanson executed this difficult task to show that a Black man could do what a White man could not.
The ingenuity , relentless energy and drive of William Lanson to make New Haven’s Wharf the longest in the United States was nothing short of spectacular. As he declared: “I used to bring my stone in scows that would carry about 25 tons at a load. The tide in this river [the Mill River] rises about six feet, and it is considered very dangerous going under the bridge. A scow must go up on the flood tide and come down on the ebb tide, and it was always considered to want three men to manage a scow, and get one load, in the day time. But I have performed the same thing myself, many a time, alone, at the night tide, taking a scow, and have been up that crooked river, . . . and got my load, the darkest night that had ever been; getting four extra loads in one week, and 30 in one season, which would make my extra money about $50.00 a season, but how easy it all went for me.” (8).
The issue concerning whether William Lanson labored under such life-threatening conditions for the money, prestige, or because he wanted to do what no White man could is arguable. However, there is an interesting story in T.R. Trowbridge’s: History of the Long Wharf explaining why Lanson wanted to extend the Wharf. As Trowbridge wrote: “A gentlemen traveling last year in the state of Iowa . . . casually heard someone speaking of New Haven and its institutions. He mentioned Long Wharf, saying it is the longest Wharf in the world, that it exceeded five miles in length and was built by a Negro; . . . that this Negro . . . contracted to build it merely to show what a Black man was capable of doing and that he succeeded.” (9).
Irrespective of what motivated William Lanson, the extension of the Wharf was a testament to his acumen in the fields of construction and engineering, as well as his sea-faring talents. Lanson proclaimed that “ . . . there was one of the best scows sunk within about 150 feet from the Neck bridge [where State street crosses the Mill River] loaded with very large stones, of the weight of about one ton each. She would carry about 30 tons, and was underwater at the lowest tides about 18 inches. I contrived a plan, and got the scow home in three days . . . “ (10). William Lanson got the scow home by raising it during the low tide.
Much of the supposed “bad repute” that William Lanson fell into in his latter years stemmed from the activities surrounding the Liberian Hotel, which he owned and “operated”. William Lanson sold New Guinea, which was land he owned in a community east of Wooster Square whose residents were of African descent. New Guinea was near the predominantly Irish section of town called Slineyville, which was named after its founder, John Sliney, who was one of the first Irish settlers who owned and operated a place of entertainment exclusively for the Irish population. William Lanson then bought the “old-slaughterhouse”, located at the end of Greene street and originally built by Ebenezer Peck to slaughter, barrel and export beef cattle. William Lanson renovated this slaughterhouse, and in its place, constructed affordable housing for people of African descent. The name of this dwelling was the Liberian Hotel. At the Liberian Hotel, writes Robert Warner, “immoral entertainment could be had . . . [There was an] Unauthorized raid in 1831 in which the mob, with insulting discrimination, “arrested” only Whites . . . The Negroes were allowed to run, the White mob not considering Negro morals to be their concern . . . New Liberia [the part of town in which the Liberian Hotel stood] remained a vice-center until the hotel burned down in 1842.” (11).
Unfortunately, Warner does a dismal job in conveying the realities of the Liberian Hotel. In its present context, Warner’s writings surmise or infer that William Lanson was a slum and vice lord in the Negro section of New Haven. However, Lanson painted a different picture when he wrote: I had a fall in the year of 1843 and hurt my breast . . . I moved into fleet street, [present day lower State street] and myself with my wife, and another man and his wife, was all family. There were two persons who came [to my house] and they had very bad colds, and wanted to stay at my house; . . . the next day I did take them for one week. I went out of town a few days, and when I returned there were two more very sick indeed . . . the more I did, the sicker they grew, and one that came last died the first month . . . The whole was about six months of sickness. I stopped about six months in this house on Fleet street and it cost me a good sum of money; but no pain was spared on my part to have those people that were sick attended to by their acquaintances. We should suppose, and it is my opinion, that the prejudice against the Liberian Hotel [approximately between the years 1836 and 1842], and this dreadful unhappy spell of sickness and two deaths at the house in about five months, raised some excitement in that neighborhood against my place; . . . And here I want to say that when I built the Liberian Hotel, I had no wish to impose upon the public, but that
I rented it to two or three different tenants and in their hands it go a bad name. I never kept it more than ten months, and during that time I was engaged in building Mr. Abraham Heaton’s Wharf.”
(12). (Emphasis added).
I imagine that it is more interesting, (despite the lack of professionalism) to write about the supposed flaws of historical characters, particularly those characters that are Black, than to attempt to explain the reality of these events. Warner’s portrayal of Lanson lacked any real support. In the first place, Warner alludes to an “Unofficial raid” of the Liberian Hotel where Whites were arrested but Blacks were allowed to go free. There are a few flaws in this observation: 1) The raid was “unofficial” and, in all probability, was designed by either rival businessmen or White male leaders in the town to discredit the character of William Lanson by whipping up public sentiment against the hotel primarily in the White community. Thus the arrest of only Whites could be used as evidence that William Lanson’s business interests were in some way directly responsible for immoral behavior on the part of Whites in New Haven; 2) Warner found discrimination in the fact that only Whites were arrested and judged this “insulting”, but failed even to mention the unlawful arrest and imprisonment of William Lanson in 1844 on “new adultery charges.”
As regards Warner’s baseless assertion that Lanson was the forerunner of the ghetto slum lord, it should be recognized that William Lanson filled a void by offering housing to Black people in New Haven at a time when Whites simply refused to do so. Lanson transformed old barns and a slaughterhouse into livable, affordable apartment buildings for New Haven’s Black community. Not only are Warner’s inferences baseless, but also present an incomplete picture of events in that part of the city. However, Colonel Gardner Morse in his article entitled: “Business Enterprise and Movements in Real Estate between 1825 and 1837”, presents a more accurate and complete picture of the Liberian Hotel and its surrounding houses when he stated that: “William Lanson was induced to dispose of his Real Estate on Franklin Street . . . and establish a settlement on the waterfront at the foot of Greene Street . . . known as the slaughterhouse which he converted into a house of resort and entertainment [The Liberian Hotel] for guest of his kind and
surrounded it with buildings and barracks for the accommodation of tenants of color of [an] . . . unfortunate condition of life . . . “
(13) (Emphasis added).
William Lanson was a skilled and able man who prospered in nearly all his undertakings. For nearly fifteen years, he owned a livery stable which had an average of twenty horses and carriages, coaches and wagons, and appeared to do quite well. He asserted “ [I] also came in possession of twelve houses and one acre of ground in a good part of the city. At this time [I] had got together, in land, houses and Wharfing in this city, what was worth about $10,000.00 . . . “ (14).
Additionally, “the actual labor aonist, served as the first minister of the congregation.
In 1839, Connecticut’s first railroad was built on the eastern edge of what was hoped to be the “New Township.” The New Township encompassed the entire area between Olive Street and the Mill River (including Chapel, Academy, East, Franklin, Greene and Grand streets [as Grand Avenue was called at that time], respectively.) Not many people lived in the new township, as there were only several buildings scattered throughout. Franklin and Greene Streets were the only open thoroughfares there. Unfortunately, the promise of the “New Township” did not materialize, due primarily to the failure of the Farmington Canal. Despite the failure of the canal, the coming of the railroad changed the port town of New Haven from a mercantile center to a manufacturing center. As a result of the boom in manufacturing and the state’s first railroad, a “sub-community appeared briefly . . . New Guinea, (mentioned earlier in this essay), operated by Black King William Lanson and a struggling group of buildings called Slineyville, inhabited by Irishmen who had come to town to dig the canal and later stayed on to build the railroad.” (16).
Despite the prosperity that William Lanson enjoyed, he had rough times as well. When William Lanson fell, he did so with the velocity and force that so aptly characterized his ascent to the peak of the construction trade in New Haven.
Nearer the end of his prosperity, William Lanson assessed his property holdings to be worth about ten thousand dollars. “I do not think my indebtness” he added “was more than half the sum. This was about the time it was so fashionable to take the benefit of the bankrupt act, and I was urged against my feelings to do so . . . till I finally consented, against the principle by which I always meant to live by. I entered into this thing not considering as much as I have since, and lost the whole of my property, and it appears as if every effort I have made since that time is against me. At that time, I gave deed of all my property , for five cents, and as the person to who I deeded it thought it not proper to give the deed into my hand soon, we let it stand; but this friend died very suddenly, and there was no chance to get a quit claim deed from him, so that
I lost all my property that I had worked for all night and day
[in approximately 1847].” (17). (emphasis added).
In addition to forfeiting all of his property, William Lanson was bought to court on trumped up charges: “I was holden and did appear on about fifteen days after the last funeral at my house, in a bond $500.00 on a new law relating to adultery. I suppose it must be made out by good eye witnesses on the part of the state, or I be set at liberty, which I knew was proper and right, and I had sixteen witnesses that know the same . . . I also paid two fines the same season [roughly 1845] . . . and in about 15 days after the last person died, I went to jail and stayed for 6 months and 14 days, when I was innocent of the crime against me.” (18)
The assassination of William Lanson’s character did not cease in 1845 as he further testifyed that “I have been in prison five times since, which will make out in all about 450 days in six years and I . . . do not know what it is for . . . I should think that in 5 or 6 years they would find something,
but I never have known anything found in out of the way by anyone, therefore I think you have been at me so faithfully, must be mistaken in the person.
” (19) (Emphasis added).
While in jail, William Lanson was stricken with arthritis and possibly pneumonia. Now in his mid-to-late sixties, the severe cold and dampness of the jail cell caused considerable damage to his joints and limbs. Yet, the wretched conditions of the jail cell were incapable of dampening the spirits of the Black King of New Haven as he proclaimed” I am going to deal in clothing on Franklin Street shortly, and if I keep my health I hope I may do well . . . while my health remains, I must do what I can.” (20).
On May 29th, 1851, this 75 year old “Black King of New Haven” who had attained the peak of both the engineering and construction trades in New Haven, died penniless in an Almshouse in New Haven, Connecticut. The cause of his death was gangrene.
It is only fitting that this essay end in the words of William Lanson himself as he states, “ I have been acquainted with five generations of Lanson blood, but I never knew any of that family to steal the value of four cents worth, and I do not think there is one person in this state that can contradict the same.” (21).