Though the name Long Wharf is today associated with a number of shops, businesses, ships and projects along the New Haven coastline (not to mention Allen wrenches and cinnamon buns), it originally referred to an actual wharf that extended into the harbor, reaching three-quarters of a mile out into deep water. The wharf construction project pre-dated the Revolutionary War and spanned decades, in an effort to make New Haven’s naturally shallow harbor passable for the sort of trade ships that would help the city prosper. The wharf was built and extended in stages from the area of Union Avenue and Water Street, and finally reached deep water in the years between 1810 and 1812, when a formerly enslaved New Havener named William Lanson made it not just New Haven’s Long Wharf, but the longest wharf in the United States.
Not much is clearly known about Lanson’s early life, but we do know that he was an engineer, entrepreneur and an active advocate for New Haven’s Black community. Lanson made a name for himself by taking on the engineering and construction of the city wharf’s final extension, a task that many considered difficult if not impossible. A few sources suggest that he took on the challenge precisely to make a very pointed statement: the papers of the New Haven Colony Historical Society say that Lanson “contracted to build it, merely to show what a black man was capable of doing.”
Prior builders had used wood on the Long Wharf project, but Lanson and his crew of Black laborers used stone to lay a steady foundation for the last 1,350 feet of construction. The men cut stone from Blue Mountain in West Haven and loaded more than twenty tons of it at a time onto special boats built to float materials to the wharf site. Once complete, the wharf extended more than four thousand feet into New Haven harbor and could accommodate the deep draft of cargo ships. Lanson’s skill as an engineer would earn praise from Yale president Timothy Dwight, and lead to future work on the Farmington Canal.
Lanson owned land and businesses including a hotel and stable in “New Guinea,” the largely Black neighborhood east of Wooster Square. There seemed to be little of civic life in which he was not involved: Lanson was active in New Guinea, turning barns and an old slaughterhouse into affordable housing for workers, he assisted escaped slaves with shelter and advocacy, helped to support Black religious organizations, and lobbied for voting rights.
In 1825 Lanson was elected “African King” of New Haven, an honorary title attesting to his prominence and sway in the city’s Black community. The shining accolades would not last, though. The combination of persistent prejudice, an influx of Irish immigration, and the growth of wealthy Wooster Square next door to New Guinea combined to put pointed pressure on the neighborhood.
Folks who would rather not see a Black neighborhood prosper went on the offensive against New Guinea and against Lanson’s character. White mob violence arose to displace residents, and Lanson was plagued by surveillance and unannounced raids on his hotel business (an 1845 clipping from the Hartford Courant called Lanson “the rascal who has caused so much trouble in this city for the last few years,” and noted he had been arrested and convicted to 6 months’ imprisonment and a fifty-dollar fine).
Worn down in body and public profile by civic pressure, financial stress and health problems, Lanson died in 1851 in poverty. On September 27, 2020, after many years of planning and discussion, the city of New Haven unveiled a statue of William Lanson in the Dixwell neighborhood, placing Lanson near the Farmington Canal on which he had worked.