By Jim Lee III
The Morris Canal could only have happened in New Jersey. Iron in the state’s northern hills attracted the attention of entrepreneurs and industrialists of a state that was in the vanguard of the American industrial revolution. However, connecting sources of New Jersey iron with the coalfields of northeastern Pennsylvania and the manufacturing centers and markets of the New York metropolitan area was not an easy task. The route needed to cut across the “highlands” of northern New Jersey, rather than follow the winding course and gradual fall of a river valley, as was the case with most other canals of the period. The Morris Canal overcame the challenge of topography through a system of locks and inclined planes, rising roughly 914 feet from New York Harbor to the canal’s summit near Lake Hopatcong and dropping almost 760 feet to the Delaware River at Phillipsburg.
The innovations underlying this remarkable engineering achievement are still a marvel today. The canal first employed giant waterwheels and, later, water-driven reaction turbines to pull 70-ton boats out of the water and up inclines 1,500 feet long in a matter of minutes, gaining up to 100 feet in elevation at a time. This was all done with water power, using water gathered in Lake Hopatcong and directed both to the east and west to carry the boats through the locks and to power the inclined planes.
The completion of the Morris Canal opened the rocky northern interior of the state to commerce and provided a channel for bulk materials, goods, and people to travel across the region in a way that the early 19th-century turnpikes could not. It spurred the growth of towns and industry along its route, many of which would have remained sleepy highland villages without the commerce and traffic of the canal. It even attracted international visitors to view the “mountain climbing” canal so they could try to replicate its success in their own countries.
Despite its positive economic effect on New Jersey and the region, the Morris Canal as a business proposition was doomed to fail. A year after it was finished, the Camden & Amboy Railroad began running passenger trains across the state in hours, while trips on the canal took days. Although some doubted the ability of steam trains to haul heavy loads up steep hills, they were soon proven wrong. The same spirit of innovation that enabled the construction of the canal soon contributed to its downfall as railroad technology took hold. Despite this, the canal was able to hold on and, with a little help from the Lehigh Valley Railroad, continued to operate into the early 20th century. It survived so long not because of the profits it made—it barely made any—but because of how interconnected it had become with the industry and communities of northern New Jersey. They just couldn’t let it go.
Ancestors on both sides of my family worked on the canal, and while this wouldn’t have been something to brag about 80 years ago, I’m proud to tell people about it today. I learned from the books my grandfather wrote and the stories my great-grandmother told that the canallers were a strong community that made a lasting contribution to the state, uniting people living in Phillipsburg with those in Jersey City and all points in between.
Although in some places there isn’t much left aboveground of this once-prominent feature of the northern New Jersey landscape, more and more people are realizing its recreational and educational potential. As the development of a Morris Canal Greenway across the state gathers momentum, it has become increasingly apparent, thanks to studies required because of its listing in the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places, that significant portions of it survive belowground. The archaeology of the canal helps to tell of its beginnings, its failures, and the innovative attempts it made to compete in the increasingly competitive industrial landscape of New Jersey in the 19th century. It also makes the canal’s history tangible and encourages interest in the waterway that can only help to support its preservation. These efforts, combined with historical interpretive programs and the development of the canal corridor as an open-space destination, will once again connect communities across the state from Phillipsburg to Waterloo and on to Wharton, Bloomfield, Newark, and Jersey City in much the same way that the first boat that climbed the mountains of northern New Jersey did in 1831.
Jim Lee III is a professional archaeologist currently working at Hunter Research, Inc. in Trenton and has been working in New Jersey and the Middle Atlantic region since 1996. He grew up on Morris Canal Inclined Plane 10 West and currently resides at Inclined Plane 9 West in Warren County.