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The Morris Canal

james lee, morris canal historianThis capsule history taken from the book "Morris Canal-A Photographic History", by James Lee.

 

A BRIEF HISTORY

In 1821 this relatively new country of ours consisted of twenty four states, many artificially separated from each other because of poor transportation arteries. There were roads; however, these left much to be desired for heavy transportation. Hauling by wagon was expensive and slow. Continued growth and prosperity demanded a more viable means of transporting goods.

Canals seemed to be the answer. Two mules could pull a canalboat with a twenty-five ton cargo quite easily. This was a considerable improvement over horses and wagons, especially when long distances were involved.

George P. Macculloch, a Morristown businessman, must be given the credit for conceiving the idea for the Morris Canal and ultimately carrying it through to completion. In 1822 he brought a group of interested citizens together at Morristown including Governor Isaac Williamson to discuss his idea with them. His proposal was received favorably. On November 15, 1822, an act was passed by the New Jersey legislature appointing canal commissioners, one of which was Macculloch, to employ technical help to investigate the feasibility of a canal, possible route location, and estimate costs. The State appropriated two thousand dollars for this study.

Ephraim Beach, a well known canal engineer, became the engineer to the commission. James Renwick, Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy at Columbia University, was retained as consultant. The spring and summer of 1822 was spent making a survey and running levels plus preparing a report which recommended that the State of New Jersey build the canal.

Macculloch's estimate of the summit level was 185 feet above tide at Newark and 115 feet above the Delaware River. When Professor Renwick completed the first rough surveys, he determined that the summit level would be 454 feet above mean tide at Newark. After the final survey was completed, the summit level was found to be 914 feet above mean tide at Newark and 760 feet above low water in the Delaware River at Phillipsburg.

The State of New Jersey did not build the canal. This was accomplished by private investors. An act was passed on December 31, 1824, incorporating the Morris Canal and Banking Company to form an artificial waterway capable of navigation between the Passaic and Delaware rivers. Twenty thousand shares of stock at one hundred dollars a share provided two million dollars of capital - one million for building the canal and one million for banking privileges. One of the provisions of the charter was that the State could take over the canal at the end of ninety-nine years. If the State did not desire to take over the canal, the charter remained in effect for fifty more years, after which the canal became the property of the State without cost. Banking privileges were to remain in effect for thirty-one years. However, these were dropped when the company reorganized in 1844.

The Morris Canal was a champion climber. It left the Delaware River at Phillipsburg and struck out boldly across the mountains of northern New Jersey. Locks were used to overcome small changes in elevations. Inclined planes overcame changes in elevation greater than twenty feet. The canal went up step by step from one plateau to another, across lakes and rivers, until it reached the Lake Hopatcong area, its summit level. From there it climbed down to the tide level at Newark.

Stock subscription books were opened in the spring of 1825. By September of that year thirty miles were under contract with seven hundred men engaged in digging the canal bed. Construction of the locks and inclined planes began later. In 1826 one thousand, one hundred men worked on the canal. Construction was divided into sections which were contracted for separately. In 1827 work began at Lake Hopatcong, or Great Pond as it was known then. This pond was raised five feet by a new dam located just above the old forge dam of the Brooklyn Forge built by Garret Rapalje about 1750.

As different sections of the canal were completed, they were opened up for local use. On November 4, 1831, the first trip from Newark to Phillipsburg was completed. The canal was 90 miles long; and, the trip from Newark to Phillipsburg took about five days. The first full boating season was 1832.

The estimated cost of the canal was $817,000.00. When it was completed to Newark in 1831, the actual cost was $2,104,413.00. In 1836 the eleven and three quarter mile extension to Jersey City was added. The main line of the canal was then 102.15 miles long. If you include all of the waters controlled by the canal company that were navigable - the additional 4.26 miles to the Pompton feeder lock, 1.76 miles to the Pompton Iron Works, .67 miles to the Lake Hopatcong feeder, and .42 miles on the little and big basin at Jersey City - you would have a grand total of 109.26 miles. This was the mileage in 1845. Within this distance there were twenty-three inclined planes and thirty-four locks consisting of feeder, outlet, tide, guard, and lift locks.

In spite of accidents on the early planes and the company's lack of profits and shortage of money to maintain and operate the canal, the adjacent territory was deriving considerable benefit even at this early period. Real estate values boomed. Manufacturers were enjoying a wider market for their products.

The canal originally was built for boats of ten gross tons; gradually this was increased to twenty-five tons. Section boats were introduced in 1845 and carried cargoes of forty-four tons. After an enlargement program was completed in 1860, boats carrying seventy gross tons and more were common. This enlargement program of the canal cost $1,700,000.00, making the total cost of the completed canal $5,100,000.00.

morris canal receiptThe tonnage on the canal steadily increased from 58,259 tons in 1845 to 899,220 tons in 1866. From 1855 on, coal was the main commodity carried on the canal. However, grain, wood, cider, vinegar, beer, whiskey, bricks, hay, hides, iron ore, sugar, lumber, manure, lime, and many other goods also were transported. The decade of 1860 to 1870 was the only prosperous period in the history of the canal, a period which embraced the Civil War, at which time all transportation facilities were taxed to their fullest capacity, and witnessed the greatest growth in population and industry of the territory served by the canal.

However, the canal company was not able to relax and enjoy the position of financial stability expected by its directors and investors. The railroads were continuously encroaching on the canal company's business. The Morris Canal did receive for eastbound shipment a considerable tonnage of coal at Washington, New Jersey, from the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad between the years 1856 and 1870. This reached a maximum of 146,359 tons during the year 1867 but dropped to 80,977 tons in 1868 and completely disappeared after 1870 when all coal was shipped on the Morris and Essex Railroad, leased to the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western in 1868.

This loss amounted to about 34.4% of the entire coal business transacted by the Morris Canal at that time.

In 1865 the Ogden Mine Railroad was built to carry iron ore from Jefferson Township to Nolan's Point on Lake Hopatcong, a distance of ten miles. This ore was transferred to canal boats which were towed by a steam tug across the lake to "Brooklyn" lock. The boats went through the feeder to the main canal and then east or west depending upon the individual bills of lading. The company derived at least 50,000 to 60,000 tons of ore freight a year from this business. In 1880 the tonnage was 108,000 tons. With a boat normally carrying seventy tons, 1,543 boat loads were needed to move this cargo. This business was lost when the Central Railroad of New Jersey took over the Ogden Mine Railroad and connected it to the Central's High Bridge Branch in 1881.

The coal and iron ore losses were major ones. Coupled with many smaller losses over the years, the company's financial position had one place to go - down. On December 20, 1870, the New Jersey legislature passed a supplement to the Morris Canal and Banking Company's charter allowing the company to lease its property. The Lehigh Valley Railroad leased the Morris Canal properties in 1871 for a period of ninety-nine years.

The Lehigh Valley Railroad guaranteed dividends on the stock at the rate of seven percent a year, almost as much as had been earned in the best year of canal operation. The canal never made a profit for its new owners. Tonnage and tolls declined steadily. As time went on, it became apparent to most everyone that the canal had outlived its usefulness.

On March 31, 1903, the legislature passed a resolution to investigate and report as to whether legislation should be passed permitting the abandonment of the canal. This commission reported that the canal no longer had any economic justification and recommended that it be abandoned. A plan of abandonment was sent to the legislature in 1905; nothing happened. In 1912 another commission was appointed. It reported in favor of abandonment; but, again the legislature failed to act.

In February 1918 the Morris Canal and Banking Company and the Lehigh Valley Railroad filed ab ill in the Court of Chancery against the North Jersey District Water Supply Commission to stop them from building the Wanaque Reservoir, needed for supplying Newark and other nearby cities with water. The canal company contended that water diverted from the Wanaque and Pompton Rivers would render it impossible to operate the canal. The canal company won its case, which led to the final and successful effort to abandon the canal.

On March 12, 1922, the legislature approved an act creating a commission empowered to make terms of settlement with the canal company with a view toward securing the transfer of the Morris Canal to the State. On November 29, 1922, the Morris Canal passed into the hands of the State of New Jersey, with the exception of the property within the town limits of Phillipsburg and Jersey City (save the Little Basin).

In 1924 a bill provided that the Morris Canal and Banking Company continue as a corporation holding the property as trustee for the State, that members of the Board of Conservation and Development be made Directors of the Corporation, that operation of the canal be ended, that Lake Hopatcong, Lake Musconetcong, Cranberry Lake, Bear Pond, Saxton Falls, and Greenwood Lake be retained for public use, and that remaining property be sold. This has been done well and faithfully over the years.

The charter of the Morris Canal and Banking Company was to terminate on December 31, 1974, thus causing the remaining properties to revert to the State of New Jersey for all time. It did not happen. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Resources continues to manage the properties under terms of the 1924 bill. Even in death, the Morris Canal is shrouded in complexity and mystery.

The history of the canal is preserved today through the efforts of local historical societies, the Canal Society of New Jersey, municipalities, and many private individuals such as myself. These groups have saved thousands of artifacts and portions of the historic waterway. A key component in the historical documentation are the photographs taken by amateur and professional photographers during an earlier era.

One photographer, Olin F. Vought (18701940), deserves special credit for his expertise with a camera and his affection for the Morris Canal. Over 140 of Vought's glass plate negatives chronicle the Morris Canal between Lock #7 West at New Village and Plane #8 East at Montville. Vought often dated and placed his initials, O.F.V., on his plates; and, you will see these on many photographs in this book. Over fifty-five Vought photographs were used. Credit for the preservation of this valuable resource goes to Miss Harriet Meeker and the Roxbury Township Historical Society. Together they make a strong case for the importance of local care and concern for our great heritage.

The ability to conserve and realize the great potential in an old photograph is the unique attribute of my friend, Ronald Wynkoop. He has never failed to copy a photograph on short notice, advise and work in photograph restoration, and do research on the subject of a photograph.

The preservation of Morris Canal history owes much to Harry L. Rinker of Bethlehem, PA, for indirectly he was responsible for helping establish the Canal Society of New Jersey. He showed me the importance of sharing my knowledge; and, together we have edited all my books on the Morris Canal.

There have been some who said that the Morris Canal was a blue scar across the northern waist of New Jersey.

I think, however, that the Morris Canal was a beauty mark, where men could work and boys and girls could play; a place where a Sunday walk on the towpath was sheer contentment; a place where there were more fish than fishermen; and an engineering wonder that brought visitors from all over the world who stood, marveled at it and admired it.

The Morris Canal is gone forever. Never again will the sound of the boatmen's conch shell horn echo and re-echo in the valleys and throughout the mountains of New Jersey.

The faithful mules and horses that toiled so long and hard pulling the heavy boats also have gone.

For over two decades, I have been tape recording the last remaining captains, drivers, lock tenders, plane tenders, and members of the maintenance crew. In 1974 the New Jersey Historical Commission gave me a grant to finish this project. The transcripts of these tapes formed the nucleus for my book, TALES THE BOATMEN TOLD.

Some whom I interviewed are still alive. May they continue to enjoy good health and fond memories. Those who have gone will remain alive through their tapes, the memories they left behind, and my books.

All who touched the Morris Canal have become family to me. What a rich ancestry to share with future generations.

 

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Books by James Lee


The Morris Canal-
A Photographic History

morris canal book
Currently Out Of Print -
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morris canal book

Available from
The National Canal Museum,
Easton, PA


 
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