Today I’m writing about the iconic Domino Sugar refinery in the Inner Harbor of Baltimore, Maryland. Why? Because the refinery – which processes 14% of the sugar used by the entire country annually – had a massive three-alarm fire that broke out three-days ago. The blaze totally destroyed the main raw sugar storage shed – called “the sugar shack” by employees – and there were initial reports about the fire damaging other parts of the facility, concerns which have since eased as the refinery resumed limited operations a day later. The total amount of damage has not yet been declared, because the blaze is still being investigated, but it’s safe to say that operations there will be impacted to some extent. Here is the best video I could find of the fire, and the ensuing collapse of the sugar shed – captured by a local news helicopter just as the structure fell (see it at the 2:49 mark).
Anyone familiar with Baltimore knows about the Domino Sugar facility, located in the Locust Point neighborhood on the Inner Harbor. The “Domino Sugars” sign dominates the skyline both day and night, even though the refinery is so quiet that it appears to be closed. And that’s what brings me to the title of this post. Even though there is little to no external activity visible to most observers, this Domino Sugar refinery is one of the biggest producers of sugar products on the entire East Coast – employing 510 full-time workers and processing some 6.5 million pounds (2.948 million kg) of raw cane sugar every day. The company is quoted as saying that their two other refineries – located in New York and Louisiana – will be able to cover for the Baltimore facility until it’s able to resume full operations again.
I was fortunate enough to participate in one of the rare public tours offered by the company back in April 2015, rare because Domino Sugar doesn’t offer regular public tours of the facility – they only seem to offer the tours once every year or two, and finding out about them in advance is nearly impossible. That said, here are the images that I’m able to share; I state it that way because the company is very security conscious, we were only allowed to take photos in a few specific locations, and all faces of visitors and employees had to be removed.
We walked through the grounds between the buildings to the main raw sugar storage shed – the sugar shack – and were allowed to take photos of the amazing sight inside, where as much as 60 million pounds (27 million kg) of raw, unrefined sugar can be stored at any one time.
I had taken my 35mm film camera to record photos of the tour, but there was so much raw sugar particulate floating in the air that I was concerned about damaging my gear – so I put it away and used my iPhone for all photos after that. When looking at the images, it appears that there’s fog inside the structure – it’s not fog, but actually high amounts of airborne raw sugar dust.
Anyone concerned about industrial safety and the flammability of sugar can tell you that working in such an environment is tricky, though Domino went to great lengths to keep the risk to a minimum. And anyone familiar with the sugar industry will tell you that fires at sugar refineries are an unfortunate regular occurrence.
One of the impressive aspects of the sugar shack is that once the raw sugar is unloaded from the massive cargo ships and piled within the structure, the raw sugar is moved by large end-loaders to wherever it’s needed.
Another staggering statistic is that over 40 of the huge vessels dock here every year and unload their cargo – or roughly one massive cargo ship every 9 days. The image above shows the piers where the sugar is unloaded by cranes using buckets – 10,000 pounds per bucket – which seems archaic, until you understand that the raw sugar has to be carefully handled so it doesn’t melt into big chunks that can’t be used. Everything in the facility is built around the fact that sugar is a delicate, highly flammable product with a low melting point.
When walking around the grounds with the tour group, the aroma of sugar and crème brûlée (melted sugar) walked through the air. We also found walking to be a little challenging because there were large chunks of sugar scattered underfoot all over the place. I had hoped we could take photos of the production lines inside the refinery – but that was forbidden – so instead here are some official videos of what it looks like inside.
Once we completed the interior tour, we were led to the roof of the refinery to see the huge neon sign that the building is famous for and to see the panoramic views of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.
I hope this post helps to show why people in and around Baltimore love Domino Sugar and hope the best for the company.
All images recorded during the refinery tour
Domino Sugar refinery in the Inner Harbor
Apple iPhone 6S