Morris Canal Captures the Can-Do History of America’s Industrial Revolution

Thinking outside the locks, engineers went instead with inclined planes that allowed boats to traverse steep slopes that defeated other canals

We’ll be on winter hiatus starting Dec. 23. While we’re recharging our batteries, we’ll be posting a series of stories about New Jersey history. We’ll be back delivering our unique coverage of politics and public policy on Jan. 2. Have a great holiday and a happy and safe New Year.

Nineteenth-century entrepreneurs who wanted to move coal or iron to where it could fuel the Industrial Revolution were familiar with the idea of canals. But the prospect of transporting raw materials between northeastern Pennsylvania and Jersey City presented them with a special challenge: the hills of northwestern New Jersey.

Some of the region’s topography was too steep for the traditional locks that allowed boats to use canals that climbed or dropped in modest gradients.

Captains of industry had to figure out how to build a canal that would let boats ascend 760 feet from Phillipsburg on the Delaware River to Lake Hopatcong, and then descend more than 900 feet to the Passaic River at Newark and Jersey City — or vice versa — without the cost of building hundreds of locks.

An audacious answer

The answer was the inclined plane, an audacious piece of engineering that found a way of moving boats up and down the steepest sections of the 109-mile route of what became the Morris Canal — without locks, and by using water power.

In the mid-19th century, the technology stimulated a market for Pennsylvania coal, New Jersey iron and a host of other commodities; reduced the demand for imported coal from England; and spurred the development of industries of all kinds in the rapidly growing cities of eastern New Jersey.

The canal’s inclined planes were the first to be built in the United States and gave it the greatest elevation change of any canal in the world, said Joe Macasek, president of the Canal Society of New Jersey, a preservation nonprofit.

Cable on Morris CanalCredit: Jon Hurdle
A length of the cable that was used to move canal boats up and down the inclined plane.

The boats, up to 90 feet long and weighing as much as 120 tons fully laden, were floated into wheeled “cradle cars” that were then hauled up or lowered down 23 sections of the canal route on rails, using massive wrought-iron cables drawn by hydro-powered turbines. At the top or bottom of each inclined plane, the cradle cars were put back into the water where the boats were refloated and resumed their journeys, pulled by mules.

Authorized by an act of the state Legislature, the canal was completed in 1831 at a cost of about $2 million. Its 23 planes and 30 locks were enlarged in the 1840s to accommodate bigger boats, and annual tonnage grew sharply to a high of some 889,000 tons in 1866. But later that decade, the canal began to lose business to the new railroads that could carry raw materials much faster.

By the mid-1870s, the canal was carrying about half the volume of 10 years earlier, and it was clear that it could no longer compete with rail.

From mover to museum piece

The canal was closed, and eventually filled in by the 1920s. Its inclined planes, locks and houses were dismantled but some of their remnants have been preserved by nonprofit groups and counties and are now open to the public at some places along the route.

One such is Plane 9 West near Stewartsville in Warren County, one of several that has been preserved. From a point near Route 57, a straight grassy swath marking the path of the plane stretches uphill to the preserved Plane Tender’s House 1,700 horizontal feet and 100 vertical feet away.

Credit: John Hurdle
A grassy slope marks the site of an inclined plane for Morris Canal boats at Plane 9 West in Warren County.

Since canal locks are typically built for each 10-foot change in elevation, that section of the route would have required 10 locks, said Jim Lee III, an archaeologist whose ancestors worked on the canal starting four generations ago, and who now lives in the tender’s house at Plane 9 West.

If locks had been built in that section, it would have taken a boat one hour and 40 minutes just to move through 10 of them, as opposed to the 12 minutes that it took to raise or lower a vessel via the inclined plane, he said.

The technology was key to the success, short-lived though it was, of the Morris Canal, said Lee’s father, Jim Lee Jr., 76. “Without the inclined planes, the canal couldn’t have worked,” he said.

The younger Lee, 46, said the Morris Canal differed from others in the region like the Delaware & Raritan which followed river valleys, and so only needed locks to traverse modest gradients.

“Because the Morris Canal strikes overland across the grain of northern New Jersey, it has to jump up out of the valley, and then jump again, and so it needed the inclined planes,” he said, in an interview. “It climbs 760 feet from the Delaware to the high point of the route at Lake Hopatcong in about 50 miles.”

The canal is an important part not only of New Jersey history but also of America’s Industrial Revolution, which depended on access to coal to heat the water that generated steam power, said Macasek.

A world powered by water

“The canal was one of many that marked the beginning of the industrialization of the world,” Macasek said. “It was a world of water power, and it was impossible for all the great cities of the East Coast to be manufacturing towns with no water power there. You can’t make that work unless you have a transportation system to get the whole thing going.”

Much of the canal’s history was swept away when it was closed and dismantled, Macasek said. Keeping it open would have required in part that it continued to be filled with water at a time when there was increasing competition for water among New Jersey’s growing cities. Plus, it fell victim to a culture that didn’t seem much interested in preserving the past, he said.

Cradle carCredit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division
A cradle car waits for a boat at the bottom of the inclined plane at Plane 9 West in Warren County.

“It might have been possible to save a few sections but Americans don’t do those types of things,” he said. “In England, they do; in Europe, they do, with a dedication to history and public open space, but  that wasn’t in vogue at the time” in New Jersey.

But closing the canal didn’t mean its history was erased; some remains, and is still being rediscovered after being lost for almost a century.

At Hugh Force Canal Park at Wharton in Morris County, historians digging about four years ago found a trove of canal-related objects that disappeared when a lock was filled in.

“In the process of digging up this lock, all kinds of marvelous things were discovered,” Macasek said. “All the mechanical stuff had not been destroyed or removed. They had just been thrown down into the lock chamber and buried in the mud. All that came up almost brand new; it had been kept wet for all those years.”

At Ledgewood, also in Morris County, work is due to start next summer on a project at Plane 2W, funded by a total of $250,000 from Morris County and the New Jersey State Historic Trust. Macasek said he expects that project to yield more historic treasures because it has never been properly excavated.

“Real archaeology has never been done at many of these canal sites,” he said.

In the hope of stimulating public access to, and interest in, the canal’s history, advocates place a high priority on extending the Morris Canal Greenway Trail, a hiking path that is designed to follow all 102 miles of the canal’s route from Phillipsburg on the Delaware River to the Passaic River at Newark. Separate sections totaling 44 miles are already built, and work is ongoing to obtain the easements or land purchases that would allow them to be joined together, Macasek said.

He called the greenway project a “daunting task” but said it is supported by Warren and Passaic counties, and by the North Jersey Transportation and Planning Authority which is a “major investor” in the project.

Open to visitors

At Plane 9W, now owned by Warren County, the house and its surroundings are open to the public the second Sunday of each month from April to October, and visitors can see many traces of the technology that connected two sections of the canal. Outside the Plane Tender’s House is a part of a vertical steel pipe where massive water pressure from the upper level of the canal drove a turbine that powered a system of cables that hauled boats up and down the hill.

A kind of aqueduct called a headrace flume dropped a five-foot column of water 47 feet into the turbine house, driving a shaft that used gearing to pull the two-inch-thick cable attached to each cradle car. “That’s a lot of energy,” said Lee III.

Jim Lee III (left), and his father, Jim Lee, Jr.Credit: Jon Hurdle
Jim Lee III (left), and his father, Jim Lee, Jr., outside the Plane Tender’s House.

A loop of cable running through a series of wheels simultaneously raised and lowered the boats. A section of it can be seen outside the Plane Tender’s House, an 1850 structure that the Lee family bought in 1946 and where Jim Lee Jr. grew up. Jim Lee III has lived there for 18 years.

Inside the house, a small museum named after Jim and Mary Lee — the parents of Jim Lee Jr. — visitors can view documents such as the charges for carrying a range of goods like apples, bricks and charcoal, as well as 19th century photographs, and notes issued by the Morris Canal & Banking Co. that once owned the canal. The cargoes even included manure gathered from thousands of horses in the cities of eastern New Jersey and carried west to fertilize farms.

Traces of the historic cargoes have included a 19th century beer bottle from Jersey City, Lee Jr. said.

Distance sign on Morris CanalCredit: Jon Hurdle
A sign at Plane 9 West shows the distances to each end of the canal.

A few yards away are two parallel lines of stones that formed a bed for the rails on which the cradle cars ran, and a wooden sign pointing to Jersey City 97.8 miles to the east and Port Delaware 4.5 miles to the west.

Although most of the infrastructure is long gone, visitors are invited to imagine the ingenious use of water power that enabled the canal to operate. A new animated video that’s shown to visitors to the house helps them to visualize the inclined plane’s operation.

Adjoining the main house is a room displaying many items from the canal’s heyday, including a section of the cable that hauled the boats, and a number of shoes from the mules and horses that pulled the boats.

Steel horses and mules

The animals, which were often led by children along the tow path, are commemorated with steel silhouettes at some places along the route, including at Bread Lock, on the canal route a few miles east of Plane 9W.

Canal mulesCredit: Jon Hurdle
Replicas of the mules that pulled the canal boats can be seen at some places along the route.

Bread Lock, now a public park owned by Warren County, was so named because it was occupied by a woman who made bread and sold it to the boat people, Jim Lee Jr. said. The park includes a replica of a 90-foot canal boat with a cabin where boat people slept on two bunks and where today’s visitors can climb down and imagine the life of those who lived on the boats.

The Bread Lock replica also shows that the larger boats were articulated, allowing them, and the cradle cars that carried them, to flex in the middle when cresting the top of a plane. Without that innovation, a long section of the boats would have stuck out of the water before being refloated.

The canal’s history can also be traced at Waterloo Village, a partially restored canal town in Sussex County, about halfway between the two ends of the canal. Visitors can look across the Musconetcong River to a long straight path leading up through the woods on the other side, marking the site of Plane 4 West. But that site is hard to reach because a bridge across the river is out, said Jim Lee III.

The Lee family’s enduring connection to the canal can be traced back to the mid-1880s when Martin Van Syckle, the great-great-great grandfather of Jim Lee III, worked on the boats. Van Syckle’s son-in-law, Peter Lenstrohm, became a boat captain, and Peter’s daughter Lizzie tended mules for him, said the younger Lee.

“She is my great grandmother whom I knew as a small child,” he said.