Thursday, August 16, 2012

Barges, Bridges, and Mules: The Story of the Delaware & Raritan Canal

Barges, Bridges, and Mules: The Story of the Delaware & Raritan Canal
Written by NJ Historian

New Jersey’s longest state park it is an expansive water and trail network that provides visitors with access to natural beauty, history, and recreation. However, less than 100 years ago, the Delaware and Raritan Canal was a bustling enterprise, employing hundreds and transporting goods and materials between New York and Philadelphia, aiding in the economic growth of the United States during and after the Industrial Revolution.

Bridge Tender's home in Griggstown.
The Delaware and Raritan Canal was formed in order to provide a water route from the Delaware River to the Raritan River, connecting Philadelphia and New York. Once built, ships would no longer need to sail down the Delaware River into the Delaware Bay and up the Jersey coast to reach ports in New York City. The canal start and end points were chosen to be at Bordentown and New Brunswick, as these were the two cities on their respective rivers that ships could navigate to before the rivers became too shallow.

In 1830, the Delaware and Raritan Canal Company was incorporated. In 1831, by an act of the New Jersey State Legislature, the canal company and the Camden and Amboy Railroad were combined as Joint Companies, in order to reduce the possibilities of competition. Construction of the canal began in November 1830 in Kingston under the supervision of Canvass White. Thousands of workmen, both local and foreign, were employed to dig the canal. The workers, a majority of whom were Irish immigrants, used picks, shovels and horse-drawn scoops. When complete, the main canal was forty-four miles long, seventy-five feet wide, and seven feet deep. A feeder canal was built to supply water to the main canal. The feeder canal collects water from higher elevations to the north, and feeds it to the highest section of the main canal, which flows generally north and east to the end. The feeder was twenty-two miles long, fifty feet wide and six feet deep. The canal system was completed in 1834, totaling sixy-six miles, at an estimated cost of $2,830,000.

Lock #8 and lock tender's house, Kingston.
The canal consisted of fourteen locks, which allowed ships to travel between the differing elevations across New Jersey. Traveling north through seven locks, the vessels were lifted fifty-eight feet to the summit (highest point of the canal) in Trenton. Seven more locks lowered the boats to tidewater at New Brunswick. Over fifty bridges were built along the canal. These bridges were originally built as an “A frame” structure with cables to the bridge deck for support, while underwater cables allowed the bridge to pivot so it paralleled the canal to allow barges to pass. Around the turn of the twentieth century, heavier traffic on the bridges caused the canal company to replace the “A frame” bridges with swinging king post bridges, which were easier to operate.

"A frame" canal bridge #18 at Griggstown. 
Approximately 3,000 Irishmen worked on the canal. A majority of them were brought from New York by canal contractors. Their pay was $1.00 per day from working sunup to sundown, six days a week. Stronger men were paid twenty-five cents extra for each tree stump they removed. The more skilled masons and carpenters were used to build the locks, lockhouses, bridges, aqueducts and the other buildings needed for the canal. Work conditions were unsavory, as they were crowded into tents with no sanitation, medical facilities, poor food, and long hours. Between 1832 and 1833, a cholera outbreak sickened many of the workers and an epidemic made its way through the camps. Hundreds perished and were buried along the canal in unmarked graves. Graves of unknown workers are located at Bulls Island, Ten Mile Run, the Griggstown Cemetery, and at various locations on the canal’s banks.

Along the canal, it was necessary to have lock tenders and bridge tenders, to operate the locks and bridges to keep traffic flowing smoothly. Since some locations were remote, it was necessary to house these canal workers at the bridges and locks. Between 1830 and 1835, the canal company built homes to house their workers. Each house was occupied by a canal company employee whose duty was to tend the adjacent bridge or lock. These houses were provided as part of the compensation to lock and bridge tenders and their families. The job was often a family affair and it was not unusual for a bridge tender to die at an advanced age while still employed or for a widow to take over as bridge tender. A few bridge tenders lived out the rest of their lives in the houses as renters after the canal closed in 1932. A total of fifteen lock houses and fifty-one bridge houses were built along the canal. Only nineteen remain today. The lock tender’s home in Kingston is open to the public along with the bridge tender’s homes in Blackwells Mills and Port Mercer.

The Kingston Lock Tender's House and Toll House (at right), 1908.
When the Delaware and Raritan Canal opened to traffic in 1834, it was not immediately profitable, and some aspects of the business that its investors envisioned, such as passenger traffic, never materialized. Mule-drawn canal boats were the main method of transporting goods up and down the canal. In 1840, James Buckelew, of Jamesburg, obtained the contract for team towing on the Delaware and Raritan Canal. He continued this for twenty-five years. Records indicate that he had over 700 mules and was one of the largest dealers in fine mules in the United States. Mule stables were located at Bordentown, Trenton, Kingston, Griggstown, Ten Mile Run, and New Brunswick. Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal was the main cargo shipped on the canal between 1860 and 1880. During that period it accounted for 80% of the total cargo on the canal. The canal was also used to move agricultural products such as flour, cornmeal, grain and feed. In 1866, its most prosperous year, the canal carried more cargo than the Erie Canal! Early toll rates for “rough freight,” which included lumber, coal, pig iron, iron ore, sand, and lime was two cents per mile. “Superior freight,” which included produce, grain, and manufactured goods, was shipped at about five cents per ton, per mile.

The mule tender's barracks. Built circa 1834.
The canal was open from April 1 to mid-December, weather permitting. The canal was closed to traffic on Sundays. The hours for “locking through,” moving from one water level to another through the locks, was normally done between 6:00 am and 6:00 pm. During the winter months, the canal was utilized for its ice, which was cut into blocks and stored with sawdust in icehouses, where it would generally last until the next winter.

Businesses along the canal harnessed the water power of the canal to run their factories. Having property along the canal’s right of way was very desirable, as John A Roebling used it to harness power for his wire rope factory.

Railroads were eventually built alongside the canal and spurred further industrial growth along the interior of the canal, most notably in Rocky Hill. The Atlantic Terra Cotta Company built a factory complex between Rocky Hill and Griggstown on 100 acres next to the canal. A spur of the Camden and Amboy Railroad serviced the complex. The terra cotta factory employed between 200 and 300 and at its peak operated nine kilns.

By the end of the nineteenth century, canal use was declining throughout the country. The speed and power of the railroad overtook the romance of the canal era. The Delaware and Raritan Canal's last year of operation at a profit was 1892. Nevertheless, the canal stayed open through the 1932 shipping season. As it closed, there was much uncertainty regarding the next use for the canal. In 1934, New Jersey assumed control of the canal and in 1944 began to rehabilitate it to serve as a water supply system. In 1973, the canal and its remaining structures were entered on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1974, over sixty miles of the canal and a narrow strip of land on both banks were made a state park. A portion of the Belvidere-Delaware Railroad corridor from Bull's Island to Frenchtown was added to the park in the 1980s. The park's trail system was designated a National Recreation Trail in 1992.

The canal today.
After the canal ceased operation, some sections of it were lost. In 1936, the Trenton section of the canal, between locks three and seven, was filled in as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project. In 1980, more than one mile of the canal in New Brunswick was filled in for Route 18, including the removal of lock thirteen. In 1998, the last mile of the canal and lock number fourteen were restored and incorporated into Boyd Park, along Route 18 in New Brunswick. Interpretive signage, lighting, paths and new bridges bring new life to the canal that served thousands and as an economic engine for New Jersey in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 

Additional photos of my trip to the Delaware and Raritan Canal on Pinterest
Delaware & Raritan Canal Podcast (right click and choose "save target/link as" to save to your hard drive)

For More Information:


Post a Comment

Thanks for the comments!