In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, North Brooklyn was the largest place for refining sugar in the world and Brooklyn’s largest industry. Although Williamsburg refined far more sugar than Greenpoint, the Havemeyer refinery at 85 Commercial Street on Newtown Creek was one of the most important American sugar refineries and was the scene of a near riot when the refinery’s workers fought for better conditions in 1886.
The members of the Havemeyer family were the crown princes of sugar. Multi-millionaire Henry Havemeyer formed an illegal cartel of sugar refiners around the United States that blocked competition, colluded to lower the amount of sugar refined and raised the price to consumers, while making all the refiners in the cartel spectacularly rich. He used his vast sugar money to buy a thousand pieces of art, which later became the basis of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection.
Working in the refinery was sheer hell, especially in the summer when the heat and humidity outside compounded the brutal heat of the refinery. Temperatures year round could reach a hundred and forty degrees Fahrenheit and the boiling of the sugar made the refinery every bit as humid as any sauna. Although men worked almost naked and were given beer at cost, many often succumbed to the heat and had to be revived. Sometimes they even died.
In 1886 the poorly paid workers struck for better wages and shorter hours. Their demands included union recognition, being asked to limit the workday to ten hours and having to do no more than two hours a day of overtime. They also asked that the plant be shut from Midnight Saturday night through midnight Sunday.
One of the questions I often get asked is what brought the Poles to Greenpoint? One of the reasons that they settled locally was because of sugar. Few native born Americans would do such horrific work for so little money so immigrants did the work and the majority of them were Polish. With few language skills needed, sugar refining provided immigrants jobs, but it was horrible work with starvation wages! Finally, the Poles and other workers struck the plant.
A New York Times article of April 23, 1886 described the near battle that was fought at the gates to the refinery. A striking worker denied entry to the plant by the police grew violent and attacked a cop. Soon other cops had joined the fray, wielding night sticks and drawn revolvers against the workers who were armed with cart rungs, sticks, cobblestones and whatever else they could arm themselves with. The Times noted the workers,” were men of savage instincts and they fought like tigers.” At the end of the fight a worker had been shot and others arrested, while many of the cops had suffered head wounds from the strikers.
The fight, however, brought the strikers little. Poorly paid, the workers could not long endure without wages. The Havemeyers had the wealth to wait out the strike. The refinery refused to meet their demands and eventually they returned to work defeated. However, the anger of the workers remained. The next year the plant burned to the ground under very suspicious circumstances, but was rebuilt.
Today the refinery is long gone and huge apartment buildings are rising where the refinery once stood, but Greenpoint’s Polish community, a legacy of the plant, survives.