"You have constructed for sixty-five miles, through the heart of New Jersey, the most spacious canal, which adds year after year, thousands to the value of her agricultural interests, while it carries with it wealth and happiness to her citizens generally, and which may be referred to as a lasting monument of the sagacity of New Jersey statesmen, and of your patriotism and munificence." James Parker - 1840 Report of the Joint Board of Directors to the Stockholders
During the early nineteenth century, canals were built as transportation routes to link manufacturing centers and markets. The Delaware and Raritan (D&R) Canal was constructed across central New Jersey to provide an efficient route for transporting freight between Philadelphia and New York City. The two cities selected as the canal’s two terminuses were Bordentown on the Delaware River and New Brunswick on the Raritan River. Water is still supplied to the main canal via a 22-mile-long feeder canal that was dug adjacent to the Delaware River beginning at Bulls Island and continuing south into Trenton. Construction of the D&R Canal began in 1831.
Many skilled men became section contractors and builders while the arduous tasks of ditch digging, earth moving, and tree removal fell to scores of unskilled local men. This local workforce was supplemented in large numbers by migratory and immigrant laborers from Ireland. Originally the main canal was 44 miles long and the feeder canal was 22 miles long, 60 feet wide and 6 feet deep. The entire canal system was completed in June of 1834 at an estimated cost of $2,830,000. Initially, canal boats were pulled exclusively by mule teams but by 1843, steam-powered vessels were in use. These faster, modern boats plied the waters alongside the mainstay mule-powered boats into the early 20th century. To reduce damage to the banks of the canal and its towpath caused by these more powerful vessels, a speed limit of 4 miles per hour was enforced.
Visit the official friends’ group website for more canal history and other information.
THE D&R FEEDER CANAL
Originally designed as a water supply for the main canal, the feeder canal was navigated by vessels from the time of its completion. In 1847, changes were made to allow canal boats from Pennsylvania’s Delaware Division Canal access to the D&R feeder canal at Lambertville. This shortened the journey for boats transporting coal from Pennsylvania to New York City. In 1850, construction of a rail line began along the feeder canal when the Belvidere-Delaware Railroad began laying track on the waterway’s original towpath. Regular rail service opened alongside the D&R feeder canal by 1854.
DECLINE OF THE CANAL
For nearly a century, the D&R Canal was one of America’s busiest navigation canals. Inevitably the speed and efficiency of railroads overtook the slower pace of canals. The D&R Canal’s last year of operating at a profit was 1892 but it remained open through the 1932 shipping season. After closing, the canal sat unused for several years. In 1936, ownership was turned over to the State of New Jersey. In the 1940s, work to repurpose the D&R Canal as a water supply began. From the 1930s to the 1970s, the D&R Canal transitioned from a working canal to a linear park. Due to a strong grassroots effort to preserve the waterway from encroachment, pollution and development, the canal and its remaining structures were entered on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. A year later, over 60 miles of the canal and a narrow strip of land on both banks were made an official state park. A portion of the Belvidere-Delaware Railroad corridor from Bulls Island to Frenchtown was added to the park in the 1980s.
The stationary bridges along the D&R Canal today are quite different than the original structures that spanned this transportation corridor when it was used for boat traffic. All the bridges crossing the D&R Canal were initially movable and gave the canal an advantage - no height restriction. Low profile mule-drawn canal boats, steam powered vessels, tall-masted ships and personal yachts were all able to navigate the corridor.
The first bridges along the D&R were A-framed swing bridges. The support for this simple, well designed timber bridge was built in the form of the letter “A” giving the bridge its name. A bridge tender, employed by the canal company, was responsible for a crossing location where he operated the swing bridge by hand with the aid of a bridge key or wrench using a system of gears and cranks.
The A-framed swing bridge served the D&R Canal well for over 80 years before being replaced in the early part of the 20th century with the stouter kingpost style swing bridge better suited to handle the weight of the automobile. Although the D&R Canal closed as a transportation corridor in 1932, these second generation swing bridges remained a fixture along the canal until they were removed and replaced in the early 1950s by the stationary bridges you see today.
When the D&R Canal first opened for operation in 1834 there were 14 lift locks along the 44-mile main stem of this transportation waterway between Bordentown and New Brunswick. Along its 22-mile feeder there was one lift lock and one outlet lock. Both were located at Lambertville.
Whenever an elevation change occurs in the topography along the route of a canal a lift lock is needed to overcome it. Think of them as a water-filled elevator that lifts or lowers a vessel from one level along the corridor to the next. Locks are needed to maintain an even, steady controlled flow of water on this “highway” for boat traffic. Few locks were needed on the D&R Canal as this contour canal was surveyed to follow a relatively level stretch of land along the narrowest central section of the state between the Delaware and Raritan rivers. The highest elevation along the route was 56 feet above sea level at Trenton.
The locks visitors see today along the D&R are altered; missing are the doors that “locked” boats in. Today water enters the lock through a sluice gate on the upstream end. When the canal was in operation, this was the location of the drop gate; a heavy wood door that pivoted at the bottom and when opened, lay horizontal and flat under the water allowing boats to float over it. At the downstream end were two large wood mitre gate doors. When in the closed position the mitre gates rested at angle against the upstream flow of water creating a tight seal.
With the closing of the canal in 1932, the wood covered masonry locks sat unused. After heated debate, a new use for the old canal as a state water supply was approved. The transformation began in the 1940s as the drop gates, mitre doors, and mechanisms were removed and replaced by sluice gates. Today only the shell of the masonry lock, now covered in concrete, is left as a reminder of the part it played in the D&R Canal story.
Facilities for People with Disabilities
The towpath trail and recreational facilities at D&R Canal State Park are partially accessible to persons with disabilities. We encourage people with disabilities who require special considerations to contact the park at the phone number listed in the general information on the home page of the historic site / park. The staff will assist with arrangements. Text telephone users, please call the New Jersey Relay Service at 800-852-7899.
For the Comfort and Enjoyment of All
This historic site / park is part of the NJ State Park system and your cooperation with the following will help ensure the survival of the museum collections, historic structures & features and surrounding property for the enjoyment and education of future generations!
Please contact this historic site / park with specific inquiries about any of these restrictions, as there may be some variations at this specific historic site / park.
Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park
Blackwells Mills Canal House Association
D&R Canal Watch
Delaware River Mill Society
Delaware Scenic Byway
Kingston Historical Society
Lambertville Historical Society
Lawrence Historical Society
Millstone Valley Preservation Coalition/National Scenic Byway
New Jersey Scenic Byway
145 Mapleton Road
Princeton, NJ 08540
Open daily from Sunrise to Sunset
Monday-Saturday; 9am to 4pm
Contact the Park Office
Entrance Fee None
40° 22’ 07.27” N 74° 36' 58.14" W