For several years I have lived in a townhouse in Changebridge at Montville, New Jersey. Along the edge of our complex is a 4,300 foot long, straight and narrow furrow in the earth. In the winter, we sometimes see people practicing their speed skating. In the summer, after heavy rains, it forms a part of the storm drainage system. It's one of the largest remaining sections of one of the greatest engineering feats of the early 19th century, the Morris Canal.
For a brief moment in history the Morris Canal linked the coal fields of Pennsylvania to the markets of New York and New Jersey. Over a five day trip, powered most often by only a pair of mules, up to 70 tons of fuel could be brought to the eastern seaboard in a canal boat. Folklore says that it was along the Morris Canal that Ivory Soap first coined the phrase "it floats."
A victim of the railroads, today the canal is empty. But as you cross New Jersey, from time to time you'll see a few hundred feet of depression in the ground - a straight line where straight lines don't occur in nature - the last vestiges of a different way of life.
Before the advent of the canals, it was actually cheaper to transport cargo from Europe to New York than to bring it from the West.
Our first President, George Washington, called canals "fundamental to nationhood." In the era before the spread of the railroads, canals held out the promise of a low cost method to link the fledgling United States and provide convenient transport to what was then "The West."
A unique engineering success story is the Morris Canal, built between 1824 and 1836. Under the impetus of George Perrot Macculloch, the Morris Canal and Banking Company was chartered by the State of New Jersey in 1824. Stockholders provided over 2 million dollars, half for banking purposes and half to build the canal itself. As was always the case, transportation developments seemed to go hand in hand with fiscal shenanigans.
The discovery that a man could, by digging a ditch and filling it with
water, not only become obscenely rich . . .
Sam Llewellyn, The Worst Journey In the Midlands
Macculloch was a very successful businessman and his mansion is still open to the public in Morristown.
Although early surveys had indicated that perhaps only a few hundred feet of rise and fall in elevation lay between Phillipsburg and Newark, in the end the builders faced a much greater challenge than the builders of the longer Erie Canal. From Jersey City to Lake Hopatcong, the Canal climbs 914 feet! It then drops 760 feet back to Phillipsburg along the Delaware River.
There are a few canals where relatively flat land lies between the termini. One such is the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, which links the Delaware River/Bay with the northern end of the Chesapeake Bay. This 12 mile canal, in its final configuration, makes do without locks. Although the water levels are about the same at both ends, the tidal difference in heights can cause a current of up to six knots twice each day. But the Morris Canal had to cut across the highlands at the heart of the state.
The traditional way to move from one water level to another is the pound lock. In essence, a pound lock is a big box with gates at both ends. To move from a high level to a low level, the gate at the low end is kept closed. Water is allowed to flow in from the high end until the level in the lock is level with the water at the high end of the canal. Then the "high end" gate is opened and the boat moves into the lock.
The high end gate is closed and water is allowed to flow out until the water level in the lock is equal to the water level at the low end. The low end gate is opened and the boat continues on its way.
To move up a level, the process is reversed.
By the early 1500s, the design of gates had advanced to double-leaf mitre gate, one hinged on each side of the lock, which met in the middle in a shallow vee pointing upstream. These gates were so carefully counterbalanced that one man or woman could open them by hand. When closed, the gates on the Morris Canal locks had to withstand a force of more than 15 tons!
Locks on the Morris Canal were 11 feet in width and 90 feet in length. The boats were 10'6" in beam, so the fit was snug!
Although Macculloch's preliminary surveys had suggested the Morris Canal
would need to climb only about 200 feet, final surveys showed that the canal's
summit at Lake Hopatcong would be 914 feet above tidewater. It would have
taken about 200 conventional locks to traverse these changes in altitude.
Noted English engineer James Renwick was hired. With his recommendation,
the many engineers and practical contractors of the Morris Canal Company
built the most highly-developed system of inclined planes in the world.
By the completion of the project in 1836, there were about 34 locks and 23
This was at the foot of the plane at Boonton.
Inclined planes are actually a form of marine railway. Canal boats, some carrying up to 70 tons, would be guided onto a plane cradle (or marine railway car). They would then be hauled out of the water and up (or down) as much as 100 feet in elevation. Initially the windlasses which hauled the smaller boats up and down were powered by water wheels. Subsequently more power to tow the heavier boats was provided by water flowing through a "Scotch" turbine from the upper level to the lower. The massive hemp hawser which pulled the cars and boats was about three inches in diameter.
In their most developed state, the largest canal boats were articulated - hinged in the middle - so they could get over the hump at the top of the plane and back down into the water to continue their journey. Of course the plane cars had to be articulated, too.
One of the longest of these planes, #9 east, located just a mile from Changebridge at Montville, provided a 74-foot change in elevation. Although only about 3 1/2 miles of the total 109-mile length of the canal crossed through Montville, the total rise in elevation was 206 feet - the steepest section of the canal.
There were other dramatic feats of civil engineering.
In the Mountain View section of Wayne, a 236-foot wooden aqueduct, supported by nine stone piers, carried the canal over the Pompton River. Another aqueduct carried the canal over the Rockaway River in Boonton.
There were only 3 "changebridges" along the route of the canal in Montville, where the towpath changed from one side of the canal to the other. A critical engineering concern was that the mules be able to cross the canal without fouling the tow line that ran from the bollard aboard the canal boat. The towpath passed under the bridge, and the mule team would execute a jughandle turn up and across the bridge. The tow rope would have to slide along side railings of the bridge without snagging. In Montville, one such bridge - bridge #95 - crossed the canal at what is today called Changebridge Road. To the east, the towpath is on the north side of the canal and is clearly visible in the restored 4,300 foot section of the canal. To the west, the towpath was on the south side, but the canal is in the woods behind an Exxon Station for hundreds of yards.
No good photographs remain of this changebridge. Steve Hrobak of the Montville Museum has a picture in his collection that shows locals swimming under the bridge on a Sunday, when traffic stopped, but it shows little of the bridge itself.
When the canal was dismantled starting in 1924, the engineer in charge of dismantling, Cornelius Vermeule, had drawings made of most of the bridges - but not #95. It is reported that one of the bridges in Montville was a suspension bridge, and some suggest that it was #95. Since a suspension cable would have interfered with the passage of the tow rope, I think it more likely that the suspension bridge was the Pontoes bridge #96. It is surprising that when the historic district survey was done in 1987, only 62 years after the dismantling of the bridge, this question could not be resolved.
In addition to commerce, the canal became a popular form of recreation. "Payboats" often took tourists along the waters. One such was the Katie Kellogg.
There are still signs today that show the previous importance of the Morris Canal. As you drive along Route 202 in Boonton, within a hundred yards of the canal's route, you see an attractive gift shop called "Katie Kellogg." The sign shows a painting of the payboat along Lake Hopatcong, I believe.
And the road in our townhouse complex that parallels the canal bed is "Macculloch Drive." The financial wizard who started the Morris Canal and Banking Company was George P. Macculloch.