The idea of building a canal across the narrow "waist" of central New Jersey, and thereby creating an inland waterway connecting Philadelphia and New York City, is reputed to have begun in 1676 with William Penn.
During the early part of the nineteenth century, New Jersey’s public passion for a canal to connect New York and Philadelphia became intense and the Legislature tried on several occasions to establish a canal through the central part of the State. The greatest obstacle to such a venture was the equally intense passion for railroad building. Rivalries between these two interest prevented the success of either until 1830 when the Legislature granted simultaneous charters to a canal company and to a railroad company to traverse Central New Jersey. A year later the two rivals merged, forming the Delaware and Raritan Canal Company and the Camden and Amboy Railroad and Transportation Company-commonly called the “Joint Companies.”
Both railroad and canal began construction in the fall of 1830. By September, 1833, the railroad was in operation over its entire line between Bordentown and South Amboy. While the section of the canal from Trenton to Kingston was opened at about the same time, it was not until the following year that the entire canal was opened.
The official opening of the canal took place on 25 June 1834, when Governor Peter Vroom and other dignitaries began a two-day trip on the canal. The Governor’s barge was met by cheering crowds at every lock, bridge, and basin along the route. They received a 24-gun salute when they arrived in New Brunswick; then Governor Vroom, his party and a brass band paraded through the city.
The canal's path across the State cuts a large meandering letter “Y.” The main canal comes out to the Delaware River just north of Bordentown. From there it runs 44 miles through central New
Jersey before it empties into the Raritan River in New Brunswick. The Bordentown location was chosen because north of this site the Delaware freezes earlier and stays frozen longer. New Brunswick was selected for the outlet because the head of navigation of the Raritan River is in New Brunswick. Ocean vessels could sail up the Raritan to New Brunswick and exchange cargo with the canal barges. A 22-mile long feeder canal was built to supply water to the main canal. The feeder begins on of the Delaware River at Raven Rock and runs next to that river all the way to Trenton where it joins the main canal.
The engineering of the canal proved to have been excellent; during the 100 years it was in operation very few changes were made in the waterway. The feeder was built to be 6 feet deep and 50 feet wide, while the main canal was 7 feet deep and 75 feet wide. Water entered the feeder at an elevation of 70 feet above sea level. The main canal climbed through seven locks before it got to Trenton and then descended through seven more locks before reaching sea level at the Raritan River. The banks were "rip-rapped" with stone so that vessels could move at a reasonable speed without washing the banks into the canal. All of canal’s bridges were "swing bridges" that pivoted horizontally so that vessels of any mast height could go through the canal. The locks were operated by steam powered winches and valves after 1868.
The cost of construction is estimated to have been approximately $2.83 million; a modest expense even by standards of the 1830s when one calculates the return made on that investment. There was, however, another cost that cannot be calculated. The canal was largely dug by hand by Irish immigrants, and scores of them died when Asiatic cholera swept through the labor camps in 1832. The workers were buried in unmarked mass graves on Bull’s Island, at Ten Mile Run, and at Griggstown. A granite monument taken from a lock in the New Brunswick section of the canal was dedicated to their memory at the Bull’s Island Recreation Area on St. Patrick’s Day in 2003.
Canal purists insist that the feeder cannot truly be called a canal because it was built as a water conduit and not as a waterway for boats. It was, however, navigable by canal barges from the time it was built. Traffic on the feeder greatly increased after changes were made in the 1840s which allowed boats to enter at Lambertville. Coal barges coming down the Pennsylvania Canal from the Lehigh Valley were locked out of the Pennsylvania Canal at New Hope, crossed the Delaware River on the cable propelled by the current of the river, and were locked into the feeder canal at Lambertville. Major engineering changes were made in the 1850s when the locks were made longer, the depth of the main canal was increased to 8 feet, and stone rip-rapping was installed to stop erosion of the canal’s banks.
It took the better part of two days to travel from Bordentown to New Brunswick via the canal with the most frequent stop-over being in Kingston. This two-day trip was an improvement over the old record of up to two weeks for water travel from Philadelphia to New York. It is difficult to assess the impact of the canal on the State. Trenton and New Brunswick clearly benefited from its presence because they became regional centers for the transfer of goods between wagons and trains and canal barges. Trenton witnessed an industrial boom shortly after the canal was opened; her population increased four-fold within a few years, and ironworks, ceramic factories, and many other businesses came during this period. It is harder to determine, however, the impact of the canal on communities between the termini. Some farm products or locally produced goods were transported by canal, but since the canal went through the narrowest part of New Jersey, few farmers had access to it. The small communities along the route, such as Rocky Hill, Griggstown, and East Millstone, must have received some impetus from the canal, but they did not and still have not become major regional centers. The most obvious benefit from the canal was derived by New York and Pennsylvania because it was their commerce -- mostly Pennsylvania coal destined for New York furnaces -- that was the chief user of the canal.
The Civil War and the industrial expansion that followed the war caused the 1860s and 1870s to be peak years for the Delaware and Raritan Canal. The record year was 1871 when 2.99 million tons (80% of which was coal) were shipped through the canal. The total tonnage for that year was more than was carried in any single year on the much longer and more famous Erie Canal.
Another important event occurred in 1871. The Pennsylvania Railroad Company took a 999-year lease on both the canal and the Camden and Amboy rail connection across the center of the State. From this time on the canal showed a steady decline. By 1893 the canal showed a net loss in its operations, and it was never operated profitably again. There were a number of reasons for the decline, but the most important of them was that other railroad lines began to open in this area.
In 1876, the Reading Railroad expanded its lines in Central Jersey and in 1893, the Pennsylvania Railroad also opened another line. The canal could not effectively compete with the much faster railroads. There also appears to be some truth to the often heard charge that the Pennsylvania Railroad deliberately killed the canal. Repairs became infrequent and rates were often raised for canal users on the very products that received simultaneous reductions for the railroad users.
In the winter of 1932-1933 the canal closed, as it did each winter; but it did not open in the spring of 1933. The charter to the Joint Companies called for forfeiture to the State for failure to operate the canal for three consecutive years. Thus in 1937, with 933 years left on its lease, the Pennsylvania Railroad turned the Delaware and Raritan Canal over to the State of New Jersey.
The canal had lasted 99 years before it was believed to be obsolete. It had witnessed an important part of New Jersey history and hosted a wide variety of vessels. There were two classes of barges in most common use. Those from the Pennsylvania Canal were 90 feet by 10.5 feet wide and drew 5.5 feet of water when loaded. The river boats from the Hudson and Erie Canals were 100 feet long by 17.5 feet wide and drew 7 feet of water when loaded. Most of the barges were mule-driven, but the country’s first use of steam tugs on canals was on the Delaware and Raritan Canal in the 1840s.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Delaware and Raritan Canal was the large variety of boats that passed through it. In addition to mule-towed canal boats, sail boats, steam tugs towing barges, freight boats, millionaires’ yachts and naval vessels used the canal. Canal boats from most canals on the east coast traversed the canal at some time. When the canal was opened it was believed that there would be a thriving business in passenger service, but the canal ultimately could not compete with the speedier railroads for passengers and this service was abandoned within two years.
After the State took possession of the canal, several studies were undertaken to decide what to do with it. These studies showed that it would have been too expensive to fill it in or to renovate it just for recreation; that the canal could not be expected to be profitable as a waterway; and that potable water was easily obtained elsewhere. But during the late 1930s, industry started to move out of cities and sites near the canal were popular because the central New Jersey corridor had excellent railroad and road systems. This industry needed water, and the canal’s water could be furnished cheaper than water provided from wells. As a result, the Delaware and Raritan Canal, which could no longer make a profit by transporting boats on its water, made a profit from the water itself.
In 1936, the Trenton portion of the main canal was deeded to that city and filled to construct the Route 1 freeway as a Works Progress Administration project. The portion of the main canal in Hamilton Township in the area of Duck Island was thereby cut off from the rest of the canal and abandoned. Rehabilitation of the remainder of the canal as a water transmission complex was started in 1944 under the supervision of the Division of Water Resources in what is now the Department of Environmental Protection. Three wooden aqueducts, which carried the canal over streams, were replaced with concrete structures. Wooden gates at Raven Rock, Kingston, and New Brunswick were replaced with concrete headwalls with steel sluice gates. The canal was also dredged and flumed in several areas to improve the flow of water.
In 1973, the Delaware and Raritan Canal and 17 structures relating to the canal were placed on the National Registry of Historic Places. A year later, in response to groups of concerned citizens and following the recommendation of a study commission headed by Senator Raymond H. Bateman of Somerset County, the Legislature passed an act which established the Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park.
Today, the canal is a great asset to the State of New Jersey. The Delaware and Raritan Canal Park enhances several urban areas and provides a corridor for conservation and recreation through the densely populated central New Jersey region. It is not only an historic site itself, but it links together many other sites that are significant in the Garden State’s development. It is an easily-accessible recreation area and it provides water to industry, agriculture and drinking water to approximately one million residents of central New Jersey.