Morris Canal

From Academic Kids

The Morris Canal was a canal and series of water-driven inclined plane railroads that ran across northern New Jersey in the United States from the middle of the 19th century until the 1920s.



One of the most significant transportation projects in U.S. history, it stretched from Phillipsburg on the Delaware River on its western end to Jersey City on the Hudson River on its eastern end. Completed in 1831 as a private venture with state sponsorship, it greatly facilitated the transportation of coal from the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania to New York City at time when the city was experiencing great industrial growth. Starting in the 1850s the canal was gradually eclipsed by the construction of railroads, although it remained in heavy use throughout the 1860s. It was formally abandoned in 1924. Although it was largely dismantled in the following five years, portions of the canal and its accompanying feeders and ponds are preserved along the rivers of northern New Jersey. It was considered a technical marvel for the height differential it surmounted through the New Jersey mountains. At its greatest extent, it was 109 mi (175 km) long.


On its western end the canal began at Phillipsburg where a cable ferry across the Delaware allowed the easy transfer of boats from the Lehigh Navigation and Delaware canals on the Pennsylvania side. From Phillipsburg, the canal ran eastward to the valley of the Musconetcong River, which it followed upstream to its source at Lake Hopatcong, the highest point along the canal route and the largest freshwater lake in New Jersey. The lake was also the major feeder source of the canal. Descending from the lake, the canal connected to the nearby Rockaway River, which it followed through Boonton, then through a gap in the Watchungs, connecting with the Passaic River at Newark. From its eastern terminus, loads were initially shipped via Newark Bay and the Kill Van Kull to New York Harbor. After four years of operation in 1836, the canal was extended eastward from Newark Bay through Jersey City to the Hudson. Unlike the original section, which was supplied by freshwater from Lake Hopatcong, the extension through Jersey City was at sea-level and was supplied with sea water.

The ascent of the canal from Phillipsburg to Lake Hopatcong was 760 ft (230 m). The descent from the lake to the Passaic at Newark was 914 ft (277 m). The surmounting of the height difference was considered a major engineering feat of its day, accomplished through 34 locks, as well as 23 inclined planes, which were considered a unique feature of the canal. These planes were essentially short railroads which allowed the transfer of loads up and downhill, driven a water-powered winch. The use of such devices had the advantage over locks in that they did not require the large amount of water needed by a lock.


The idea for the construction of the canal is credited to Morristown businessman George P. McCulloch, who reportedly conceived of the idea while visiting Lake Hopatcong. In 1822 McCulloch brought together a group of interested citizens at Morristown to discuss the idea of building the canal. The group, which included New Jersey governor Isaac Williamson, received the proposal warmly.

On November 15, 1822, the New Jersey Legislature passed an act appointing commissioners for the project. The legislature apportioned 2,000 dollars to the commissioners, one of whom was McCulloch, to investigate the technical feasibility of the project, including its possible route, as well as to provide an estimate of the costs. McCulloch initially greatly underestimated the height difference between the Passaic and Lake Hopatcong at only 185 ft (56 m).

On December 31, 1824, the New Jersey Legislature chartered the Morris Canal and Banking Company, a private corporation charged with the construction of the canal. The corporation issued twenty thousand shares of stock at one hundred dollars a share, providing two million dollars of capital, divided evenly between funds for building the canal and funds for banking privileges. The charter had provision that the State of New Jersey could take over the canal at the end of ninety-nine years. In the event that the state did not take over the canal, the charter would remain in effect for fifty more years, after which the canal would become the property of the State without cost. The banking priviliges were dropped when the company was reorganized in 1844, leaving the corporation as canal-operating business only.

The original design of the canal allowed for boats of 10 tons, which was small by standards of the day. By 1860, the canal had been progressively enlarged to allow for boats of 70 tons. The traffic load reached a peak in 1866 when it carried 899,220 tons of freight (equivalent to approximately 13,000 boat loads). By 1850, the water wheels that powered the inclined planes were replaced with more powerful water turbines. The original iron chain and hemp ropes used for towing were eventually replaced with iron wire cables. Although the original purpose of the canal was the transfer of coal eastward from Pennsylvania, eventually it was also used for the transfer of iron ore westward from New Jersey.

In 1871, the canal was leased by Lehigh Valley Railroad, which severed the connection with the Lehigh Navigation Canal, since it was operated by a rival railroad. Partly as a result, the decline in revenues of the canal accelerated and the railroad never realized a profit from the operation of the canal. In 1889, the cable ferry across the Delaware was dismantled. Commercial traffic on the canal ceased entirely in 1915. In 1922, the State of New Jersey exercised the option in the charter and took control of the canal. It was formally abandoned in 1924, and by 1929, the canal had been largely dismantled.

In the 1950s, the former right-of-way of the canal through Jersey City was used in the building of the Jersey City extension of the New Jersey Turnpike.

Portions of the canal are preserved in various locations around the state including Waterloo Village. Stephens State Park in western Morris County includes a lock and a section of the canal towpath.

See also

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