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Map of New Jersey depicting the route of the Morris Canal (Click on Map for more detailed view.)

Morris Canal Route


The 1820's were a time of commercial expansion in the United States.  Land booms were common occurrences and trade was growing.  Unfortunately, transportation hindered growth in many areas.  There were no railroads at that time and land travel through dense forests over unimproved roads was often the only means of transportation.  Hauling goods by land was very costly besides being very slow.

Indeed, the prosperity of the iron ore industry was flagging, partly due to poor transport methods and the unavailability of an adequate fuel source, namely coal.

Canals seemed to be the answer.  It was estimated that two mules could pull 3 tons on a flat road, while the same team could pull 50 tons in a canal boat.  The nation agreed with this simple logic and the canal era in America was born.  The Morris canal started as an idea of a Morristown businessman named George P. McCullough in 1820.   McCullough conceived of a canal descending from Great Pond (Lake Hopatcong) to the Delaware River on the west and to the Passaic River on the east.  In 1824, the New Jersey state legislature gave itsí stamp of approval and chartered the Morris Canal and Banking Company.

Construction began in 1825.  The canal was built in sections with local entrepreneurs taking charge of the work in their respective areas.  In Centerville (Richfield) section of Clifton, Joseph (Josie) Van Winkle, a Dutch farmer and innkeeper organized local Dutch farm boys and Irish immigrants into a work force.

As each canal section was completed, it was immediately put into service.  What an incredible feat!  The canal was built before bulldozers, backhoes and dump trucks.  The entire length of the 102-mile water way was dug entirely by hand.  Rocks were blasted away with Black Powder as gunpowder was yet to be invented.  

The canals western terminus was Phillipsburg on the Delaware River from which the four-foot deep (later five) snake of water stretched to Jersey City and the Hudson River.  Mules or horses were used to pull the boats 15 - 20 miles per day.  The complete trip took five days.  The canal was closed to traffic on 9pm on Sundays and during the winter months.

Thirty-four locks were constructed to raise the 70 to 80 foot canal boats over the hills, but locks were not sufficient enough for all upward slopes.  Phillipsburg, for example, was 200 feet above sea level, while Lake Hopatcong was at 900 feet.

For steeper terrain, 23 incline planes were built.  The mules (or horses) were disconnected and the canal boat was floated onto a wheeled cradle that carried the vessel upward on railroad tracks.  Once the summit was reached, a hinged in the center of the boat allowed the front of the boat to arch downward and re-enter the water are the far side of the inclined plane.  A water-driven turbine powered the inclined planes mechanism.

Coal was the main commodity shipped on the canal.  Other products included grains, wood, cider, hay, iron ore, lumber and fertilizer.  Richfield farmers required the later commodity and also used the waterway for drainage.  Tolls were charged for freight and passengers.  Although tolls were charged, the Morris Canal was never a financial success.  

A Canal Boar Captain and his family lived on the boat in a six by nine-foot cabin.  There was a minimum of conveniences; a coal stove, folding table and side and rear bunks.  Laundry was hung outside to dry on ropes attached to poles on the deck.  Locally, the waterway crossed the Passaic in Little Falls on a stone aqueduct, made it's way through Paterson via the western side of Marshall Street, along Garret Mountain and entered Clifton at Hazel Street, proceeding along Broad Street, the canal then flowed through the level lands of the Richfield and Allwood sections and exited into Bloomfield where an inclined plane was located.

Richfields tiny business district, at the intersection of Van Houten and Broad Street offered a Blacksmith shop, Hotel, General Store, Post Office and other amenities to the Boatmen, their families, and travelers.  A canal storage basin and mule shed were located near the hotel as well.

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