This year is the 185th anniversary of the founding of the Long Island Railroad. Despite service delays and fare increases it remains the spine of Long Island and the center of its transportation network. The LIRR serves over 300,000 passengers a week with about 90 million rides a year.
The origins of the LIRR, chartered by New York State in April 1834, have a little remembered dark side. Much of the railroads early funding came from profits from Caribbean sugar produced by enslaved African labor. The key link between the LIRR, sugar and slavery was William F. Havemeyer.
Havemeyer inherited his father’s Manhattan sugar refining plant on Vandam Street between Hudson and Greenwich in 1828, moved operations to Williamsburg, Brooklyn in 1855, and eventually the company was renamed the American Sugar Refining Company with its primary product marketed under the brand name Domino. Havemeyer was also a three-time Mayor of New York City, elected in 1845, 1848, and 1872.
Cuban slavery was at the center of Havemeyer’s operation. The sugar industry gradually took-off in Cuba after the Haitian Revolution pulled the most productive sector of the global sugar industry out of the market. However, because by 1808 both the United States and the United Kingdom had outlawed the trans-Atlantic slave trade, a continuous stream of newly kidnapped and enslaved Africans had to be smuggled onto the island where their life expectancy in the sugar fields was only about seven years. One of the better remembered slave rebellions took place on the Amistad when kidnapped Africans took over a ship that was transporting them from Havana to the Cuban sugar fields.
Cuban raw sugar was shipped to the Port of New York on coastal vessels where it was refined by Havemeyer’s workers and then distributed across the United States and Western Europe. Planters were able to continually purchase newly enslaved Africans despite the legal risks because of the Havemeyer refining and marketing operations.
William F. Havemeyer retired from the sugar business a very wealthy man in 1842. With his returns from profits on slave produced commodities he became one of the principal investors in the Long Island Railroad. Other Havemeyers remained in the sugar business and one, a distant cousin, Henry Osborne Havemeyer, later founded the Sugar Trust as an illegal monopoly and became a President of the LIRR. The later Havemeyer’s company was a major exploiter of Cuba after the Spanish-American War and was the subject of federal anti-trust suits.
In the opening stages of the 2020 presidential race, some of the candidates have raised that the United States reexamine its past and consider how it can recompense African American communities for the ravages of slavery, Jim Crow, and racism. One small step would be when Americans celebrate institutions like the Long Island Railroad we should also pause to acknowledge how much of early United States development was rooted in the exploitation of enslaved Africans and the profits made off of their unpaid labor.
Long Island Rail Road Map courtesy MTA.