In Trenton, Route 1 is a concrete colossus that cuts the city in half, diagonally southwest to northeast. All day long the highway howls with the roar of motors and tires, and the thunder of heavy trucks. What most of those drivers don’t realize is that just beneath their feet, there is another manmade highway.
Today this highway lies in stillness and darkness, unused and nearly forgotten for the better part of a century. It is a section of the Delaware and Raritan Canal and in the last century it too was a great artery of commerce, where smoke belching steamboats hauled coal from the mines of Pennsylvania to the furnaces of New York.
In the 1800s, this canal connected sleepy rural New Jersey to the world and sparked its transformation from a farming region to a center of industry. Yet today it provides an oasis of nature in a landscape of suburban sprawl. Aside from a few sections in Trenton and Bordentown that have been filled in or covered over, the main D&R Canal, plus its feeder canal, are largely intact and form a 60-mile long park, the longest and narrowest in the state. If you live in Central New Jersey, the canal is probably close to your back yard whether you realize it or not.
Howard Green, research director of the New Jersey Historical Commission put it like this: “It is one of the most beloved parks in the state, a sinewy, snake-like greenway through one of the most heavily populated parts of the world. It has gone from being the machine in the garden, to being garden in the machine.”
The first person to propose digging a canal across the “waist” of New Jersey between the Delaware and Raritan rivers was William Penn who, in the 1690s, suggested that such a canal would shorten the distance between the two largest cities in the colonies, Philadelphia and New York, by 100 miles at a time when traveling by virtually nonexistent roads was dangerous and impractical.
More than 100 years later, road transport had improved but moving heavy goods was still prohibitively expensive. For some cargo, moving material to market cost 10 times as much as it did to produce. In New York, it was cheaper to buy coal from Europe than to import it from the nearby coal fields of Pennsylvania. And commerce shipped up and down the Atlantic coast remained vulnerable to being lost in storms or to the British.
Thomas Jefferson’s treasurer, Albert Gallatin, proposed digging four canals at different points along the East Coast. This would allow vessels to travel the entire length of the coast, through rivers, bays and canals, without ever having to venture in to the Atlantic Ocean, improving transportation for the whole country and protecting shipping from British raiders.
Those canals were all eventually built, and the Intracoastal Waterway eventually became a reality. But thanks to characteristic political dithering, it wasn’t until the 1830s that New Jersey finally got started building the D&R Canal at a time when canals were starting to face competition from railroads.
The state chartered a private company, the D&R Canal Company to build the canal in 1830 and sold shares to the public. But the shares failed to sell out, leaving the project underfunded, and it looked as though it would fail again. That’s when Robert Stockton of Princeton sought financing from his wealthy father-in-law.
To secure funding for the project, the state combined the canal company with the newly formed Camden and Amboy Railroad company, and gave the joint company a monopoly, banning other railroads and canals from being built within 10 miles of its route.
The D&R main canal went 44 miles from Bordentown to New Brunswick. A smaller “feeder” canal supplied it with water, and ran parallel to the Delaware River for 22 miles, from Bull Island to Trenton. Soon after the charter was signed, an army of laborers set to work digging the canal.
Toil and Trouble
About 1,000 men wielding picks, shovels, and scoops dug the ditch by hand and built the 14 locks that would allow boats to be lifted 115 feet over the length of the canal. Where roads crossed the canal’s path, sideways-moving swing-gate bridges were constructed so that canal boats would have no height limit.
Many of the workers were local; some were farmers who needed work during the winter. This workforce was supplemented by Irish workers, who were brought in to supplement the workforce. According to some sources, the workers made about $1 a day and were paid 25 cents for removing stumps and also received a ration of alcohol. But wages may not have been this generous: an article from the Sentinel of Freedom newspaper from 1852 describes an unsuccessful strike by Irish canal workers demanding a raise to $1 from their 75-cent daily wage.
Bob and Linda Barth, members of the D&R Canal Watch group of volunteers who work to preserve the canal and educate the public about its historical importance, have spent years researching its history. Linda has written two history books on the canal: “On the Delaware and Raritan Canal,” and “The Delaware and Raritan Canal at Work,” along with a children’s book, “The Bridgetender’s Boy.”
Bob Barth said workers endured harsh and unsanitary conditions and lived in squalid camps that moved along with the progress of construction. In 1832 a cholera outbreak swept through the camps claiming the lives of a number of workers, although the historical record isn’t clear exactly how many. “The people making the money didn’t care much about the people doing the work,” Barth said.
A monument on Bulls Island commemorates the sacrifice of the workers.
The canal opened to great fanfare in 1834, with Governor Peter Vroom making the first boat journey from Bordentown to New Brunswick on a barge, arriving to a 21-gun salute.
From its opening, the canal was a success. In addition to encouraging transportation, the canal also provided power to nearby industries. Attracted by cheap shipping and water power provided by the canal, John Roebling chose Trenton for his wire rope factory in 1848. Later, Johnson & Johnson set up its plants in New Brunswick along the canal and were a major user of water power. Mercer County’s rise as an industrial powerhouse can be credited partly to the existence of the canal.
The majority of traffic on the canal consisted of boats hauling bulk goods, mainly coal from Pennyslvania bound for New York. At first the boats were towed by mules, and later were steam powered or were towed by steam tugs. Linda Barth said the typical canal boat had a large cargo hold and a small house at the stern, where boat captains would live with their families.
Rise and Fall
During the Civil War, the canal helped the U.S. military by providing an efficient way to transport supplies from northern factories to the front lines. The first troops to rush to the defense of Washington D.C. after the outbreak of war were the New Jersey Militia, who traveled by steamboat, taking the canal for part of their journey.
In its busiest year, 1871, the D&R Canal had more freight traffic than the longer and more famous Erie Canal. But its heyday was short lived. In 1871 it was taken over by the Pennsylvania Railroad, and 1873 was the last year the canal turned a profit. Railroads had become so fast and efficient that boat canals like the D&R could no longer compete. The canal closed to traffic in 1932, turned over to the state government. Part of the canal in Trenton and Bordentown was filled in and paved over, and about a mile of it in Trenton was covered over with Route 1, although water still flows beneath. Bob Barth said he has talked to canoeists who have braved the subterranean journey beneath the highway.
But the closure of the canal to boat traffic wasn’t the end of the story, and it has enjoyed a second life. The canal retains its legal right, negotiated centuries ago, to draw water from the Delaware River and this is perhaps its greatest asset. The canal is used as a water source for industry and municipal water supplies, and about 1 million residents of central New Jersey drink from it every day.
Its second use is for recreation. Over the years the towpath has been transformed into a well maintained walking path that follows the main and feeder canals, forming a 60-mile long park. Thanks to several foot bridges, pedestrians can walk its entire length without having to cross highways. It was made a state park in 1974.
It’s also a historical attraction for enthusiasts such as the Barths. And while the general public can enjoy the canal by walking, biking, or kayaking, the Barths are working to provide a new way for visitors to see the canal, by organizing boat tours.
“The canal is probably just as useful now as it was at its peak,” Bob Barth said.
Much of the historic information in this article came from Bill McKelvey’s “Along the Delaware and Raritan Canal,” available at canalwatch.org. To learn more about the canal and to hear an interview with Bob and Linda Barth, listen to the Forgotten History podcast produced by Community News Service. Search for it and subscribe in your favorite podcast player, or visit www.soundcloud.com/forgottenhistory.