New Haven honors William Lanson

william lanson
William Lanson, a 19th-century Black engineer, entrepreneur and abolitionist who built much of the Farmington Canal in Connecticut, is honored along the East Coast Greenway (Photo: Laura Burrone).

The following is an excerprt from the forthcoming "Guide to the East Coast Greenway: New Haven, Connecticut, to Providence, Rhode Island," coming spring 2021. 

By Lisa Watts // Contributor

A seven-foot bronze statue at the Lock Street entrance to the Greenway’s Farmington Canal Trail celebrates the life and legacy of William Lanson. The 19th-century Black engineer, entrepreneur and abolitionist built much of the Farmington Canal after successfully extending New Haven’s Long Wharf. Lanson’s life story illustrates the best and worst of American culture in the 1800s—the promise of a free Black man building thriving businesses, but the scourge of racism that beat him down, resulting in him living his last years in a poor house.

Lanson moved to New Haven with his family around 1803 and started a quarry business. In 1810 he took on a complicated contract: extending Long Wharf by 1,350 feet so it could accommodate larger cargo ships. Lanson had flat-bottomed boats built that could carry 25 tons of stone, which his laborers quarried from nearby Blue Mountain. 

Close on the heels of this successful project, writes historian Peter P. Hinks, Lanson established a popular hostelry on Chapel Street. He also purchased substantial acreage and houses in New Haven’s largely undeveloped New Township in the 1810s and ’20s. Many Black families settled in the area, mixing amicably with white neighbors and visitors

In the 1820s, Lanson won contracts to build the retaining wall for the harbor basin opening up from the Farmington Canal as well as sections of the canal. Development was picking up in New Haven. Construction of the canal brought Irish laborers, followed by other ethnicities of laborers and mariners. Racial tensions grew. “Many New Haven residents succumbed to scapegoating their problems on the Black population, while the old elite who had upheld and contracted with Lanson had lost their pre-eminence,” Hinks writes. Lanson was an outspoken advocate for voting rights and integration, but “rising white prejudices won the day.” By the time of his death in 1851, Lanson had lost his properties and wealth. 

At a September 2020 dedication of the Lanson statue, New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker issued a formal apology to Lanson for the harassment that he endured as a Black man and declared September 26 as William Lanson Day in New Haven. His striking sculpture stands as a reminder to visitors of past mistakes and as a tribute to all that Lanson contributed despite the injustices he suffered.

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