Historical Morris Canal showcases Bloomfield’s rich history

Photo courtesy Historical Society of Bloomfield/ The Morris Canal circa early 1900s


By Jeff Bahr

If I heard it once I heard it a thousand times: “Many years ago the Morris Canal ran through here,” my mother would say to me with a genuine look of astonishment on her face. “In fact, it was only a stone’s throw from where our house stands today!”

“Big deal,” I thought. For some bizarre reason this factual tidbit seemed to tickle my mother’s imagination at a level that fully escaped my 10-year-old brain. To my way of thinking, the only thing more boring than an abandoned canal was a canal that had vanished completely. Actually, that’s a bit misleading. While watered and unwatered remnants of the old ditch existed in spots across the state, then as now, none were very big and only the smallest overgrown leftovers remained in my hometown of Bloomfield.

But facts are facts. In addition to becoming a veritable superhighway during its heyday in the mid-1800’s, moving much-needed commodities like coal and lumber from the Eastern Pennsylvania/Western New Jersey region, the Morris Canal (1836-1924) was a true engineering marvel. It was an even greater achievement than the famous Erie Canal that flowed a few hundred miles to its north, even if the Morris Canal never eclipsed the Erie in fame. The reason was gravity, or more precisely the human triumph over gravity. Water doesn’t flow uphill. So floating a canal boat over northern New Jersey’s rippled topography – an undulating stretch of hills and mountains that make the Erie Canal’s course look tabletop flat by comparison – should have been an impossible feat. Yet somehow it was done.

Local historian Richard Rockwell knows something about canals in general and much about the Morris Canal in particular. At a March 27 slideshow presentation at the 1840 Parish House in Bloomfield, Rockwell captured the audience’s imagination as surely as a mule tows a canal boat.

Visitors unfamiliar with the Morris Canal and the liquid swath that it cut through Bloomfield learned not only of its rambling path, but also of its sizable role in turning the former backwater town into a thriving town.

Playing to a standingroom- only crowd, Rockwell kicked things off by displaying canal facts.

Devised by George P. Macculloch as a way to inexpensively move anthracite coal and other commodities across the hills of northern N.J., the Morris Canal was started in 1825 and completed in 1831. In its original state it spanned 106 miles from Newark Bay at its eastern terminus, to Phillipsburg, where it emptied into the Delaware River. Along its path 23 locks and 23 inclined planes performed the heavy lifting of canal boats. With some of these vessels transporting as much as 30 tons of coal at a time, the task was formidable.

The Morris Canal’s length might seem insignificant when compared to the Erie Canal’s 363 miles, but the engineering behind the Jersey ditch was decidedly state of the art. The canal needed to climb 914 feet from Newark Bay to its summit at Lake Hopatcong, and then drop 760 feet on its way to the Delaware River at Phillipsburg. This gave the waterway an average vertical rise of 18 feet per mile compared to the Erie Canal’s far gentler climb of one foot per mile.

The technology necessary in overcoming these natural obstacles was so impressive that Scientific American, the magazine of note for the scientific community, would publish an article that focused on the canal’s inclined planes (short water-powered railways that plucked boats from the water and towed them up over steep rises), with particular attention paid to Plane 11 East, the 54-foottall marvel that once sat smack, dab in the middle of Bloomfield.


Photo courtesy Google Maps/ Canal pictured on previous page has been filled in and converted to John F. Kennedy Drive


According to Rockwell, Another notable feature along the canal’s Bloomfield run from the Belleville border (near Mill St.) to its northern end at Rt. 3 in Clifton was Lock 15 East, a 10-foot boatraiser located just south of it. In addition to these features, a canal traveler’s eyes could be treated to bucolic stretches pretty enough to capture the imagination of artists. But looks can be deceiving. According to Rockwell, a great deal of toil was taking place here, no matter how peaceful or serene the scenery appeared. He explained that, in most cases, “running a boat was a family affair,” and that a crew would put in long, arduous hours while making the five-day crossing. But he also explained that fun could be had on the canal, especially during the summer, when boat hands would simply dive into the canal to cool off.

Rockwell told a particularly entertaining tale about people who lived beside the canal. Enterprising sorts would stand bottles around their houses in an effort to entice young boatmen into taking aim at them with chunks of coal, said Rockwell. Naturally, it would take many volleys to topple even one bottle, and the boys were said to be a persistent group, so the coal would keep on flying. The end result? Bored youngsters itching for some fun during their tedious day got a welcome reprieve from the drudgery, while cagey homeowners netted free coal to help heat their homes in the winter.

Perhaps the most memorable part of the presentation came when Rockwell projected an assortment of then and now images on the screen. It’s one thing to see static photos and paintings of canal landmarks; it’s another to see those very same images placed side-by-side with photos of what each area looks like today.

For instance, Plane 11 East was located where the hilly section of John F. Kennedy Drive now exists, just north of Foley Field. When Rockwell flashed a modern photo of the roadway beside an image of the canal taken over a century ago, the resemblance was uncanny. Unique curves, rises and contours of the landscape could easily be detected between the two photos.

But there was something more in these illustrations that really brought it home for me. Just to the west of Plane 11 East stands a residence known as the Collins House. It’s plainly visible in the old photo. Rockwell explained that two generations of carpenters plied their trade here, helping to build the planes, boats, bridges and aqueducts that comprised the historic Morris Canal. The house still stands today. It’s located just behind the McDonald’s on Broad St. It is now abandoned and in horrendous disrepair, to be frank, but it wasn’t always so.

When I was a teenager I remember seeing children playing in front of that very house. I had no idea that the canal had once run beside it, or that previous owners had done so much to make the canal a reality. But I know now. With that said I’ve been forced to adjust my outlook. It looks like dear old mom was right after all. The Morris Canal was indeed a big deal. And I’m guessing if Richard Rockwell has anything to say or do about it, it shall always remain so.

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