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D&R Canal State Park is a Haven for All

(Photo by Vicki Chirco, historian, D&R Canal State Park)

From its history as a 19th-century form of transportation to its recent renovations, D&R Canal State Park remains a major asset to the region

By Ilene Dube

How lucky are we to live in Central New Jersey, with the D&R Canal State Park coursing through our landscape. The 70-mile-long linear park is a thriving wildlife corridor, where dragonflies fall in love, turtles sun on logs, great blue herons wade along the shore, and bald eagles nest overhead. A recent bird survey found 160 species, 90 of which nest in the park.

In addition to being a refuge, activities such as boating, jogging, hiking, cycling, and fishing attract visitors from around the world. With its wooden bridges, locks, spillways, waste gates, stone-arched culverts, and bridge and lock tender houses, the canal is an attraction for history lovers, photographers, poets, and painters.

The upper reach of the feeder canal wanders through several historic New Jersey towns along the Delaware River, such as Stockton and Lambertville. The main canal winds northward from Bordentown through Trenton and continues through Central New Jersey, ending in New Brunswick. 

The historic towpath along the main canal from Trenton to New Brunswick offers a natural surface for hiking, jogging, horseback riding, and cycling. From Mulberry Street to Bakers Basin Road, the trail is crushed stone. The trail along the feeder canal is made of fine textured crushed stone.

Before we get to the rich history of the D&R Canal State Park, let’s begin with what’s new.

The Byway Visitor Center in Griggstown is now open, thanks to the Millstone Valley Preservation Coalition, sponsor of the Millstone Valley National Scenic Byway (a 27-mile loop predominantly along the D&R Canal from East Millstone to Kingston). The center is open Saturdays and Sundays through the last weekend in October. Visitors can stop by between 1 and 4 p.m. to speak with docents and learn about the canal and byway. The Visitor Center is located in the original Griggstown bridge tender’s house where its kitchen is interpreted and furnished for the period 1840-1860. Outside a garden contains period medicinal plantings and vegetables. You can pick up maps, brochures, and pamphlets of trails, historical sites, and recreational opportunities at the center.

The Kingston Canal House (a former bridge and lock house) has had a much-needed makeover. With funding from the Canal Society of New Jersey and in partnership with the Kingston Historical Society, the entire water damaged facade received several fresh coats of paint in addition to other maintenance-type repairs. 

After trail damage by Tropical Storm Ida in September 2021, repairs to the Alexauken Creek pedestrian bridge are complete. The crossing is now open for public use.

Also, the towpath between Stockton and Bull’s Island, located behind Prallsville Mill, remains closed to continue repairs to the former Belvidere-Delaware railroad trestle bridge, also caused by Tropical Storm Ida. The trestle conveys the state park’s multiuse trail over the Wickecheoke Creek in Stockton.

With a history that dates back more than two centuries, the canal has played a vital role in the development of the region.

The D&R Canal was first conceived in the early 1800s as a means of transporting goods from Philadelphia to New York City. At the time, there were no railroads or highways, and water transport was the most efficient way to move goods across the region. The canal was designed to run 44 miles from New Brunswick to Trenton, where it would connect with the Delaware River.

“Visitors walking along the towpath may become curious about what was here before. They can learn more about the history through some of the programming we do, such as after-work and weekend walks, and reviewing the material on our website and on our signs. We’re here — anyone can call and pick my brain. The most fulfilling part of my job is getting people to connect.”

— Photo and quote by Vicki Chirco, historian, D&R Canal State Park

Construction of the canal began in 1830 and took more than six years to complete. The work was grueling — thousands of workers were involved in digging the canal by hand. They had to contend with rocky terrain, treacherous slopes, and the threat of flooding.

The canal was largely dug by Irish immigrants. Scores of these workers died when 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.

Despite these challenges, the canal was completed in 1834 and officially opened for business. It took the better part of two days to travel from Bordentown to New Brunswick using the canal, with a stopover at Kingston. The two-day trip was a big improvement over the two weeks for water travel going from Philadelphia to New York via the Atlantic Ocean. 

The canal quickly became the primary means of transporting goods across the region. Farmers used the canal to transport crops and livestock to markets in New York City and Philadelphia, while merchants used it to move goods between the two cities. The canal also played an important role in the transportation of coal, which was in high demand at the time. During its heyday it was a thoroughfare for mule-powered canal boats, steam-powered vessels, and pleasure boats of all kinds.

(Photo by Charles R. Plohn)

From its beginning the D&R Canal was wider and deeper than many similar 19th century canals and equipped with moveable bridges at every crossing. Lock tenders and lock houses were regular features on most canals; however, the D&R Canal also required bridge tenders and bridge houses for its swing bridges. These houses served as homes for the Canal Company employees stationed at each lock and bridge location.

The D&R Canal helped to spur economic growth in the region. It also created new job opportunities, which helped to improve the standard of living.

Records show that women played an active role in the day-to-day operation of the canal. Census sheets list the names of women who were bridge tenders. These were often the widows who took over the bridge tending duties from their deceased spouses. These women were able to earn a stable income while maintaining occupancy of the canal houses for their families. In some cases, daughters took over the bridge tending duties for elderly fathers.

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 source began. Thanks 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, more than 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 Bull’s Island to Frenchtown was added to the park in the 1980s.

The canal serves as a water supply system for much of Central New Jersey. Stream corridors are critical to improving and maintaining water quality entering the canal and the canal park; they allow these areas to store and mitigate stormwater that may contribute to flooding. The Delaware & Raritan Canal Commission’s stream corridor protections and easement program have resulted in one of the largest protected riparian corridors in New Jersey.

(Photo by Vicki Chirco, historian, D&R Canal State Park)

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