Morris Canal: A Cruise across New Jersey
One of the most relaxing and decadent vacations to experience today is a cruise. You have choices like being a passenger on one of the floating apartment houses or a more intimate stay on a freighter type of ship with accommodations for a dozen or so. Each will have fine food, beverages, and entertainment, not as glitzy on the freighter, however. For a step up in glamour, there’s cruising the lakes, rivers, and canals of Europe with stops to castles and museums. But what is this about cruising across New Jersey? On what? In what? How is that possible? Well, maybe you’ve heard of the Morris Canal.
The Morris Canal cut across New Jersey from Philipsburg, Pennsylvania, ending at the Passaic River in Newark by 1834. By 1836, it went across Hudson County ending at the Hudson River. Originally constructed to transport coal from Pennsylvania, added to the list of cargo was iron ore, timber, and agricultural products.
Operating everyday except Sunday– and in the winter when the Canal froze– the barges were towed by mules walking an adjacent path. There were workers on the barges to tie and loosen lines, secure the cargo, and perform deck hand duties. It was 102 miles and approximately a five day trip across New Jersey. Some of these deck hands had their families with them and they remained on the barge while the Canal traffic halted for the Winter because of the ice.
After the Canal opened, a secondary business opportunity soon arose. In addition to cargo, people were transported to destinations along the Canal. And since it was a multi-day trip, accommodations were necessary on board. Such amenities were made available on a new type barge called a “line boat”.
For five cents per mile, a passenger was entitled to a rack on which to sleep and a meal. There were separate sections for men and women; women slept in the kitchen area and men in their dormitory in the dining area. In pleasant and warm weather, cots were set out on the deck. A change of clothes was possible if a person brought them, but few thought it necessary or even had them.
Arising in the morning, the men would lower a pail over the side for water for a refreshing sponge bath and perhaps a shave. Articles like combs and hair brushes were available in the cabin. Men would discuss politics or play, cards or checkers, or other popular games during the slow ride. Ladies would knit or just engage in conversation with other passengers.
Later, a more civilized passenger Canal boat towed along by horses was used between Newark and Patterson. And a steam powered craft appeared on the Canal for a short time after the Civil War.
Before you get concerned thinking about a trip on one of these barges using Canal water, consider this. The Hackensack and Passaic rivers at that time, in the 1820’s, were used as a water supply for many communities, including Jersey City. The water for the public was pumped to reservoirs where impurities were removed by settling and filters. In the late 1890’s, cities like Jersey City were building reservoirs that captured water in the watershed before sending it in pipes to other nearby reservoirs or in the City. That way, the water didn’t make its way to polluting the river. Clean water was being recognized as paramount for public health.
In Western New Jersey sections of the Canal still contain water and are now public parks. In Jersey City, there are portions of the filled-in Canal slated to become bicycle and pedestrian pathways. Part of the new Berry Lane Park is built right over the Canal. That portion will be clearly marked with interpretive signage matching that of the other sections of the Canal in the West now open to pedestrians and cyclists.
Driving North on Route 440 from Danforth Ave. to Communipaw Ave., you might notice the large space between the road and the building line on the right. That space was the Canal, since filled in. When the Bayfront Honeywell development on the West side of Route 440 is completed and Route 440 becomes a Boulevard, that old Canal space will become part of the Morris Canal Greenway, a recreational path for pedestrians and bicyclists. The Greenway will continue on or near the old Canal bed through Jersey City until it reaches the Hudson River. It won’t be the same as that leisurely trip on the Morris Canal for five cents per mile including meals, but there will be places to stop for refreshments where you can rest and think about the past on the old Morris Canal.