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This story by Carolyn Foote Edelmann was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on July 5, 2000. All rights reserved.
A Stroll For All Seasons
The best kept secret in New Jersey is not your boss’s
salary and bonus package. It is, instead, the towpath of the Delaware
& Raritan Canal, a well-worn trail that stretches back into the 1830s.
In its heyday, this pathway reached from New Brunswick to Burlington.
Along this spine, the coal of Pennsylvania moved to the mouth of the
Raritan, where it was shipped to Manhattan to fuel our young country’s
industrial might. In the process, New Jersey itself leapt to new economic
Mules were the path’s first power source. For nearly a century, their
hooves tamped its sandy bed, tugging the barges that carried the coal.
Mule tenders’ barracks, canal tenders’ houses, mills, even functioning
locks are still reflected in these waters, — at Griggstown and
other nearby sites. Sail and steam gradually rendered the faithful
mules obsolete, as the railroad would consign barges and their tenders
to the past. But echoes resonate even now: Basin streets in Princeton
and in Kingston hearken to the time when these craft were tugged into
turning basins to reverse direction.
Even now, you can touch history at the Alexander Road entrance to
the Delaware & Raritan Canal State Park. You’ll be standing on the
site of the Railroad Hotel which became the Steamboat Hotel, for obvious
reasons. You can poke around for remnants of Billy Lynch’s Bottle
Shop. You can conjure up — especially on a spicy autumn afternoon
— dapper yachstmen mooring their craft where barges used to reign.
These watermen were Princeton alums about to cheer their team to victory
or defeat in nearby Palmer Stadium. You can marvel that this compact
area was a small industrial mecca, turning out doors and window sashes
and iron roofing; providing a hay press; sheltering a coal yard, a
lumber yard. Nothing reigns there now but a ragged array of trees,
and the tall wild garlic mustard. There are no sounds of coal or lumber
moving. Rather the drone of bees, the doodle-doodle-do of spring’s
wood thrush. This stretch of the path is currently the most rugged,
either from roots and rocks or from the unforgivingly sharp grey stones
of recent restorations. This is not a trail to take, by the way, when
it is late or you are tired.
It’s not unusual for one of the venerable trees of the Institute Woods
to have succumbed in some recent storm. On the high trail south from
Alexander, a white ash was felled and sawn. Someone impeccable had
marked and numbered the tight annular rings of this slow-growing tree.
"1872" "1905" "1950." Rain has already had its way
with these pencilings, but it was a shock to see that the noble ash
had put on a mere two inches in girth since I entered grade school.
Whether you’ve ever heard of the Towpath or not, you cannot `go West,
young man’ or woman, from Route 1 without crossing a canal bridge.
Some are high and arched, some still painted the original tomato red.
Some set up a clatter that will jar any driver from 2000 right back
to the 1830s (Route 518 in Rocky Hill). For all hikers, bikers, joggers,
birders, fisher-people, even canoeists (for rent at Alexander Road
near Basin Street, and at the Griggstown Causeway), the towpath of
this Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park is a kind of paradise.
An Eden that can be reached any night after work, and full of wild
gifts in any season. A garden where a new tapestry of flowers is flung
down every week; and one whose serpents are only slender, silent,
For your flight from corporate reality, there is usually ample parking
near any canal bridge. North or south, you’ll be retracing steps of
voyageurs from other times. George Washington and his bedraggled troops
trudged alongside the Stonybrook River (water source for Princeton’s
canal) in January, 1777, on their way from victory at Princeton to
winter quarters in Morristown. Your quick stride follows the labored
steps of thousands of brawny Irishmen who dug and died for this towpath.
You’ll find yourself on the heels of birders over many decades; famous
scientists, brooding over experiments at the nearby Institute for
Advanced Study. You’ll partake of something I call "the fellowship
of the towpath," a certain knowing smile or word of welcome exchanged
among the blissed-out travelers. You’ll all be making the most of
the outdoors in a pristine setting, just inches from one of the busiest
corridors in America. The wonder is that, on this water-hemmed rail,
there is normally no sign of the man-made, save the dust under your
One of the towpath’s secrets is that it is a place of many moods.
You can significantly alter your adventure, depending on where you
first set foot. For example, if it’s hot or windy, Alexander Road
and south is the cool place. You’ll be sheltered by tranquil Institute
Woods, heron and thrush your boon companions. For an expansive experience,
hop on at Washington or Harrison and scurry north along Lake Carnegie.
Here you’ll scarf down draughts of sun and the fresh linen scent of
breeze over the waters. Any morning, when scullers’ oars are dripping
dawn, the lake can be so still that fish bubbles do not change their
patterns. Try not to think of Monet, as you make a turn and face an
infinity of lily pads. This stretch is easy enough that you can dare
to race the sun down, even walk by moonlight. Somehow the lake and
the path itself seem to cradle the light.
If you go far enough, you’ll cross the fishing bridge and may see
and hear various levels of exhilaration at that sport. I once cheered
with a triumphant man who held up his huge grey catch (which he told
everyone was a cowfish.) New Yorkers skimming by, challenged, "You
gonna eat that?!" Another morning, a grizzled man settled his
descendant onto an upended white lard pail. Grandpa lovingly inserted
the pole with its long string and baited hook into the little guy’s
clenched fist. "There. Now you know all there is to know about
Glossy turtles line up according to rank (which means size — is
it pecking order with turtles?) on logs afloat on either side of the
trail. Anything that looks like a polished Prussian helmet is one
of the older generation of turtles. If you maintain your steady pace,
the sunning amphibians will stay in place. If you slow even a fraction,
concentrate on their shining presence, they’ll all slip into the impenetrable
canal. Turtles are the sure sign of spring. If they’re not up, it
isn’t. If they are, even slathered with winter mud, the season has
Farther north along Lake Carnegie, and you’re in Eastern Kingbird
territory. These slender, dapper, charcoal-garbed birds are rare and
special. Their Latin name doubly brands them as tyrants. Identify
the kingbird by the white stripe on the tip of the tail, as well as
by a certain feistiness toward larger (egg-stealing) birds, the crows
Soon, you’ll hear Lake Carnegie’s dam, and be treated
to our resident double crested cormorants. (Never mind looking for
the crests – they’re thin and frail and rarely evident and not common
to all cormorants at all times, anyway.) Newish to Princeton, these
slender goose-like birds represent resurgence in that species. Our
cormorants survey watery reaches from bare tree limbs beyond the froth.
Sometimes, they stand straight up like preachers, waving imperious
vestments (to dry feathers preparatory to future swims.) Cormorants’
arrow-straight flight is a lesson in determination. But it’s their
abrupt disappearances while swimming that’ll have you holding your
head in disbelief, wondering if you hallucinated that dark diver.
In autumn, this is the stretch where the shy bittersweet opens golden
gates to coralline centers; where wild grape reaches for cerulean
sky with brassy hands. Naturalists will tell you that an old wild
grape vine, deep in untrammeled woods, can yield a quart of water
between two gashes. In fall, pokeweed here is electrifying, sharp
magenta stems leading to vibrant blue-black berries. You want to know
how they taste, but remember that something is poison. Indians used
the crushed berries for war paint. Even poison ivy (fall-burnished)
joins the Virginia creeper in berry production — all essential
fat-providers for migrant songbirds. They couldn’t make it to South
America without the fruits of our towpath.
Know that the towpath alongside the lake will be the most crowded,
in most seasons. This can be the bad news or the good news, depending
on your mood. The path is also the best maintained, so that strollers
can be pushed there. Be aware that currrent traffic on River Road
above Route 518 has become auditorially unbearable. If you require
quiet, don’t start your northbound jaunt until the Griggstown Causeway.
If you get on the towpath next to Nassau Street/Route 27 (near the
Wine Press), you can walk north to Rocky Hill on one side and back
on the other. Two very different experiences, both seriously wooded.
Just watch out in floodtime — this stretch can be wild.
Of course, there used to be towpath all along both sides of the canal
— one for northbound and one for southbound vessels. But single-sided
restoration, over the last 25 years, is miraculous enough. People
who live near to and know the mostly empty, sometimes paved, often
forgotten Erie Canal, marvel at ours. On the more recently opened
side (right, as you’re facing Rocky Hill), there is a fairly extensive
pond. Last year, this was the site of a nest of most welcome rainbow-hued
wood ducks. On the other, more deeply wooded side, great horned owls
make nightly forays, if you time your walk correctly.
From May on, expect the towpath to spread a magic carpet of bloom,
like some profligate rug merchant, for your personal enjoyment. On
a recent evening walk, the yellow flags and their deep purple kin
(tall wild iris) spiked canal banks between Harrison and the fishing
bridge. Where flags wave now, look in six weeks or so for similarly
spiky, rangy plants of brightest scarlet bloom, one of whose names
is `firecracker plant’. Flags and firecrackers are both vivid signals
of healthy water. Take comfort in these signs, since this is our drinking
The first fuzzy extensions of sumac remind one of the antlers of young
deer, and promise thick candles of deepest burgundy before long. Besides
tasting rather wonderful — something like strawberry — this
is a drink high in vitamin C. It can prevent scurvy (as will steeped
green pine needles), a disease one needs to fear far more than hunger
if stranded in the wilderness.
After the fishing bridge, look left at the lake edge, where pickerel
weed shoots its sturdy arrows. When the pointed leaves were about
the size of the human hand, Indians knew to pick up their travois
and migrate. In this season, by that sign, they relinquished their
hunter ways to become gatherers of seafood by the shore.
First crowns of daisies spurt beside the lake. Bank swallows dip and
sweep and chatter by the dark arced footbridge. There you can stand
and read of the ordeals of the Irishmen without whom we would not
have this path. How they came over as indentured servants, but to
a canal rather than a person. How they worked far more than a five
day week, for $1, with the most primitive sleeping conditions and
no sanitation. How they might supplement their income and win their
freedom, if they were really sturdy, by pulling out tree stumps, for
25 cents each. How hordes died of cholera and other maladies, some
being buried at the Griggstown cemetery; most just joining the landfill
where they fell. There isn’t even a place where you might weave them
a wreath of wildlings, thank them for their role in the prosperity
of our land. The mules then and we now trod over Irish bones, far
from old sod, sacrificed to new.
Where else can you hear a concatenation of orioles? By whatever name
(bird namers keep bouncing us back and forth between Northern and
Baltimore, the latter restored for the moment), these bright orange,
and dashing black (yes, most appropriate for Princeton) win the prize
for beauty of coat and of song. How wonderful when the orioles, the
svelte yellow warblers, the saucily military red-winged blackbirds
coast back and forth across the still waters of the canal. All that
glory, doubled, just for you.
Off in the distance, up near the dam, there is often the tease of
kingfisher rattle. If you see something a slightly duller, slightly
larger blue jay, plunging from a branch, it’s his majesty. Kingfishers
usually fly down. So if you hear a rattle, don’t look up. You’re most
likely to see the grey-white blur as a clear reflection rather than
reality. Kingfishers may remain over the winter, so you may have that
as a treat on a blustery day, along with occasional herons.
Be aware of numbered milestones hither and yon. True
denizens of the towpath tend to touch these angled stones for luck.
(Well, most are angled. When Lake Carnegie was dredged, workers set
one in absolutely straight, parallel to the path. I wish for the strength
to right this misleading concrete post.) The whole point of these
angled granite markers is to show bargemen how many miles remained
to Burlington (on one side) or to New Brunswick on the other, the
original ends-of-the-line. Flat milestones are not only meaningless
but invisible to a person in the middle of water.
At other places, you’ll be treated to clearer mementoes — locks
through which water still courses (above 518 in Rocky Hill toward
Griggstown); mule tenders’ barracks (Griggstown); lock tender’s house
and station and mill site (Route 27 at Kingston). If you extend yourself
to the Pennsylvania segments of the Delaware and Raritan Canal, you’ll
come upon a sawmill, gristmill, and linseed oil mill (along with art
exhibits and sometimes music) at Prallsville Mills on Route 29 at
Be aware that the towpath isn’t limited to Princeton. Hie yourself
to Lambertville. Park within the sound of falling water from canal
locks. You can leave the car on or near Swan Street. Walk east to
the towpath, then south, past serious fishermen. Strike out for the
wing dam below New Hope. Even early in a chill spring, this site will
reveal people kayaking as if this were the Salmon or the Snake instead
of the domesticated Delaware. You’ll see swimmers bobbing about in
Listen now for the repetitive `witchety witchety witchety’ of the
Common Yellow Throat. Apart from his rakish black mask, this one’s
intensely yellow all over. On the other side of the towpath, you may
be treated to the `sweet sweet sweet’ of the paler Yellow Warbler.
More svelte than the Yellow Throat, the Yellow Warbler sports lovely
jagged tan lightning bolts (its identifying field marks) along its
slender belly. Your trek will be natural and even wild, with ducks
and geese and offspring piping on all sides in spring.
But you can catch the town life if you walk north. Here, the clocks
of Lambertville seem permanently set to the time when the canal was
thriving and a certain local (named Sutter) took himself to California
to launch a gold rush at Sutter’s Mill. Your trek will take you near
old railroad tracks, which see a smart tourist business on weekends.
If you keep going, you’ll end up in Stockton, where "There’s a
Small Hotel" was written and the wishing well still collects pennies.
Study their murals to absorb the spirit of canal outings, when fancy
ones dressed to the Edwardian nines to be barged along on a Sunday
afternoon. Check out the furious firefighting scene painted next to
the generous chimney.
Farther yet brings you to Bull’s Island, where locks preside and footbridges
can take you across to another state and back. Sixty-nine densely
wooded campsites beckon those who’ve thought to reserve in advance,
some of the settings at a point where two rivers course along, singing
lullabies by day and night.
It’s hard for me to absorb the fact that the two canal systems —
Pennsylvania’s and New Jersey’s — were linked by an overland trestle.
This overland stretch has vanished; as some of our towpath and canal
have gone underground (near Route 1 in Lawrence.) Green Acres funding
promises a future footbridge over the highway, so that determined
trekkers can follow the original path. The canal people have placed
good maps at many entries, so it’s possible to study and memorize,
once again, how it all was in barg time — prehistoric, really
— before Route 1.
Barracks, Griggstown, 908-722-7428. A three-mile walk from Griggstown
to the new interpretive area in Rocky Hill. Free. Sunday, July
9, 10 a.m.
Lambertville Lock, Bridge Street, Lambertville, 732-873-3050. Guided
three-mile walk for all ages along the historic towpath. Free. Sunday,
July 9, 10 a.m.
Locktender’s House, Route 27, Kingston, 732-873-3050. Guided four-mile
walk for all ages along the historic towpath. Free. Sunday, August
6, 10 a.m.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.