The Showcase Magazine - Articles


The Morris Canal Cut A Mighty Swath

By Walker Joyce

When you think of transportation here, the first road that probably comes to mind is the Turnpike, that gloriously ugly, all-business pavement connecting New York with Philadelphia, and other points west. Or maybe the Garden State Parkway, our other major toll road that spans the entire 172 miles of our eastern border and takes thousands to the Shore.

But 190 years ago, the pride of our conveyance was an ingenious, man-made water route linking the Pennsylvania coal fields with the port of Jersey City. Like the Erie Canal before it, the Morris Canal opened the eastern seaboard—and therefore the world—to trade expansion, and literally fired the flames of the Industrial Revolution.

It was the age of iron, and the blast furnaces that produced cast and wrought versions of the metal were fueled by anthracite coal. The Morris Canal was the most efficient means of linking the vast mines with the big city factories. Thus, it heated up the economy along with the forges.

The unique innovation of this artificial river was a series of inclined planes required to scale the mountain ranges in the northern portion of the state. These planes reduced the number of locks needed to lift boats up the elevation, thus expediting transport. All told, crafts rose 1600 feet in 90 miles, a rise that would’ve required at least 300 locks under the old system. In the end, the entire trek required only 23 locks, the same number as the planes.

The “Father” of the Canal was George McColloch, a prominent Morristown businessman. Thus, the waterway is yet another feather in the cap of our most historic city.

He got the idea while visiting Lake Hopatcong in 1822. He then assembled a committee of supporters, and the state legislature appointed McCollough and two other men as commissioners to create a proposal.

Two years later, Trenton chartered a private bank which sold stock to raise capital. Millions were collected, and soon construction was underway.

Ah, those were the days: free enterprise building public works without crippling taxes!

It opened in 1829, though it wouldn’t be finished for three more years. Eventually, the railroads began to eclipse canals, followed of course by autos. But the Morris Canal had a good, long run.

In its glory years, annual freight of hauled goods always exceeded half a million tons. Things peaked in 1866, at 889,000 tons.

Coal and iron ore remained the main goods transported, but the Canal also brought grain, lumber, spirits, and even ice to market.

The waterway remained viable into the 20th century, but by 1923, near its hundredth birthday, its era had passed. The state dismantled it, draining and filling in its route.

A surviving portion can still be seen at Waterloo Village, in Sussex County. Though it too has seen better days, original structures like a Methodist Church and a general store still show what life was like along the banks.

Today, The North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority, a federally authorized agency cooperating with state and county officials, is planning a Greenway, a series of parks along the right-of-way.

Thus, the Morris Canal will live on and continue to enhance the lives of our citizens.