Brooklyn was the sugar-refining capital of the world for nearly a hundred years, beginning in the latter part of the 1800s. At the height of production, almost all of the sugar consumed in the U.S. came from Brooklyn. Sugar refining required steam power and Brooklyn became a hub of steam-powered industry with an unlimited supply of pure water from the Croton Aqueduct and coal easily transported in by barge and rail. Its excellent port, plentiful labor, and proximity to a vast market also helped make Brooklyn the sugar king.
Most of the refineries sat along Williamsburg’s waterfront, where raw sugar, largely from the West Indies, was shipped straight to the factory docks. There, men and machines melted, boiled, purified, spun, and dried the raw sugar, transforming it into pure white crystals. (The image at left shows workers packing the white stuff into barrels). The process–dirty, hot, exhausting, high-pressure and dangerous–took its human toll. But work in the refineries was steady and paid decent wages, so many stayed with it for years. Granulated, Brownulated, Confectioners, Superfine, Dots, Golden Light Brown, Old Fashioned Dark Brownthe Brooklyn refinery produced a greater variety of sugar than anywhere else in the world.
Until very recently the Domino Sugar plant still dominated Williamsburg’s waterfront. But in August 1999, with machinery that had been used for 111 years, the last raw sugar was processed there. For the next few years, Domino instead processed sugar in Baltimore and shipped it to Brooklyn for packing. Weakened by union struggles and unable to compete with newer refineries, even packing became too much. In 2004, the plant closed its doors.