The New Jersey Office of Budget and Management confirmed yesterday that $14 million from the U.S. Department of the Interior will be appropriated for the maintenance and upkeep of the D&R Canal, part of the New Jersey State Park system. This cash infusion will ensure that this landmark piece of history on the National Register of Historic Places will continue to be preserved.
Today, most residents of New Jersey know little if anything about this man made body of water, but the D&R Canal ( Delaware and Raritan) served an important function in early American commerce that boosted America’s economic progress. In the first fifty years of our republic, the transportation of goods from Philadelphia to New York City (America’s two most important cities at that time) was far more costly and difficult than one would imagine today. The overland route of only one hundred miles was via a dirt road often mired in mud. This is the U.S. Route 1 of today; but at that time, the cost of wagons, horses and drivers for bulk goods was prohibitively expensive. The route by sea from Philadelphia and New York was a better alternative, but still hardly ideal. One need only look at a map and one can see that the route was long (south on the Delaware River into the bay of the same name, then a 180 degree turn around New Jersey’s southernmost point of Cape May, and sail on north up the Jersey coast to New York Bay). But in the day of sail, travel in a straight line was uncommon since ships needed to “tack” to catch the wind, so the 240-mile water route was in reality 500 miles or more; and bad weather could prolong the journey into weeks, not to mention the perilous hazards of ocean travel that made the New Jersey coast a graveyard for shipping.
Engineers in America looked to Britain’s example for a better answer, and at that time the British were embarking on a system of canal building to facilitate the movement of goods in an inexpensive manner. It dawned on men with vision that best way to get goods from Philadelphia (and the Delaware River basin) to New York City was by the building of a canal somewhere through the narrow neck of the Garden State. The 1820s and 1830s were a time of furious canal building across several states in the East. This task was far more difficult than just the digging of ditches. Engineering challenges arose since the canals had to be built perfectly level to keep the water from collecting at one end, and a system of “locks” along the canal’s length were necessary to deal with the changing elevation along the route. ( To picture this, imagine level troughs at different heights, joined by a lock that lifted ( or lowered) the barge to the next section of canal. Since the Delaware River could be navigated by ship up to Bordentown, NJ ( about 20 miles north of Philadelphia, and just south of Trenton) it was decided that Bordentown would be the southern terminus of the new Delaware & Raritan Canal.
The other terminus was at New Brunswick, NJ, which was near New York City’s waterways. Construction on the D&R began in 1830; and 44 miles of main canal were laid out and built, along with another 22 miles of feeder canals, much of them hand dug, mostly by immigrants – who labored to dig the seven-foot-deep, 75-foot-wide canal – as well as the building of locks, stone retaining walls, and systems to keep new water feeding the canal to replenish water lost from leaks and evaporation by skilled craftsmen.
The D&R was a tremendous success from the outset, and the cost of the transportation dropped to an astonishing low for the time, as well as being regular and reliable, all facilitating far greater commerce between Philadelphia and New York. As an aside, it’s ironic that a canal had a place in relegating Philadelphia from being the most important city in the United States, to the No. 2 slot. That was because, even prior to the D&R’s construction, the Erie Canal in New York State was open for commerce in 1821. Far longer, this canal tied the Hudson River with the Great Lakes ( at Buffalo), and all of the commerce in what was then called the “Northwest” (Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, western Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Wisconsin) now had an outlet to New York City, and to the world. It didn’t take long for New York City to eclipse Philadelphia as the most important and busy seaport and commercial city in the U.S.A, a title that city has never relinquished and maintains to this day.
The D&R’s heyday coincided with the U.S. Civil War, and it was coal that accounted for 80 percent of the total cargo that plied the waterway. From other canals that linked with the D&R, anthracite coal from upstate Pennsylvania wended its way down to Bordentown, then along the canal, offloaded at New Brunswick where “lighters” (ships that could navigate the back channels of New Jersey could reach Staten Island, and then on to Manhattan, supplying New York with her daily need for fuel. The first canal boats on the D&R were mule drawn, and Bordentown to New Brunswick was a two-day journey. Residents with homes along the canal would set up bottles on back yard fences facing the canal, and bored barge crews would pass time trying to knock those bottles down, netting the homeowners with some free coal. Eventually, the development of railroads by some of America’s most prominent industrialists, men like Cornelius Vanderbilt, spelled the eventual end for the canal era in America. Railroads were not only faster, but winter ice often stopped the canals dead for prolonged periods which made the railroads a more practical alternative. Yet, despite the inroads of the railroads, the D&R still slogged on. Mule-drawn barges were replaced with steam-propelled barges in the 1870s. But by the 1890s, the D&R never turned a profit; yet amazingly, New Jersey’s most famous canal remained open for commercial business all the way until 1932 before finally ending service.
Hundreds of miles of canals across America were abandoned due to progress, and the superior and cheaper service of the railroads, and the canals were filled in with dirt, covered up and built on to the point where one would never even know a canal had ever existed on that spot. However, the D&R thankfully was spared that fate since it was seen as a source of water after closing down in 1932. Later, the D&R was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973; and 36 of the original 44 miles are still there to be seen and appreciated today, as well as a good portion of the feeder canals. (In Pennsylvania, running parallel to the Delaware River between Bristol and Easton, PA, you will find the Delaware Canal, 60 miles of stunningly beautiful scenery that is now part of Theodore Roosevelt State Park, and is one of Pennsylvania’s most popular tourist spots. )
A walk along the D&R canal, with its locks, the old stone homes and lock houses where the “lock tender” resided, with its natural beauty is a journey back in time, when commerce moved at the pace of a pair of mules, and the boy who held the reigns walking by their side, as well as the “tillerman” on deck who kept the barge on a true course. It was a different time, difficult for most of us to even imagine in this day of “sixteen wheelers” barreling up I-95 or other busy crowded corridors filled with traffic and blue smoke. But that was life almost 200 years ago, and hopefully, those who venture near the old D&R will be inspired to reflect on what once was and used to be, and ponder on how mankind has progressed through the ages, for better or worse.
By David A Eldon