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On This Day in History: January 9

Fire at the Refinery

On Jan. 9, 1882, a spectacular fire destroyed Havemeyer & Elder in Williamsburg, at that time one of the nation’s largest sugar refineries. The fire left its 1,000 employees jobless.

The once gargantuan sugar industry in New York City had its beginnings in the late 1700s. The first sugar boiler began operation on Pine Street under the name of Edmund Seaman and Company.

William and Frederick C. Havemeyer, who were employees there, opened up their own refinery in 1805 on Vandam Street. In 1857 they helped to form Havemeyer, Townsend & Co. on South Third Street in Williamsburg, where undeveloped land, a deep-water harbor and abundant cheap labor soon attracted other refineries. At one time there were over a dozen sugar refineries in Brooklyn — many of them on the Williamsburg and Greenpoint waterfront.

The Havemeyers’ first plant in Williamsburg had a daily production capacity of 300,000 pounds of refined sugar and ultimately grew until it was producing a million pounds a day. Following the Jan. 9, 1882 fire, the buildings that still exist were erected. The refinery’s capacity rose to three million pounds per day.

Henry O. Havemeyer (son of Frederick, Jr.) formed what was known as the “sugar trust” in 1887, which consolidated most of the major refiners in Brooklyn, which included Havemeyers & Elder, DeCastro & Donner, Brooklyn Sugar Refining, Dick & Meyer and Moller, Sierck. This “trust” eventually operated under many names: American Sugar Co., National Sugar Refining Co., Domino Sugar and Amstar Sugar.

The Havemeyers, in control of the “sugar trust,” were following the era’s familiar pattern of monopolistic industry control. There were repeated tangles with the federal government over monopolistic and unfair business practices during the early 20th century. As competition was revived, the companies named under the trust lost market share.

Havemeyer refineries adopted the brand name of Domino around 1920, at the time they started marketing domino-like sugar cubes.

In 1988 the company was sold to a British firm, Tate & Lyle, although the big neon Domino sign continued to glow as one of the best-known sights on the Brooklyn waterfront. After that, the big refinery was racked by bitter labor disputes with hundreds of members of the International Longshoremen’s Association being on strike and locked out by Tate & Lyle. The plant closed down a few years later.

There is now a plan under way to convert the old plant into a residential complex while also preserving elements of its industrial past, such as the neon sign.

January 9, 2012 - 3:03pm


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