Finding History in NJ on the D&R Canal

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Griggstown, NJ on the D&R Canal. 

As recent photographs indicate, I was in New Jersey a few weeks ago. I’m a native Long Islander (forever a Vermont flatlander) who grew up with jokes about New Jersey. Sorry, NJ, though I know you grew up with Long Island jokes. Fair is fair. My experience with New Jersey was limited to long trips that traversed the New Jersey Turnpike (traffic!) and getting lost on the Garden State Parkway (teenagers + navigation = trouble) and the Jersey Shore (great beaches, not to be confused with the TV show). Imagine my surprise while visiting friends in Princeton and we discovered the gorgeous architecture of Princeton and the unexpected discovery of the D & R Canal State Park.

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The Delaware & Raritan Canal State Park is a 77 mile linear park that transformed the former canal towpath into a recreational resource for walking, running, biking, horseback riding and kayaking. The canal opened in the 1830s, constructed (hand dug) by mostly Irish immigrants. Originally the canal connected the Delaware River to the Raritan River, the Philadelphia and New York City markets. The canal opened in 1834 and continued in operation until 1932. The land became a park in 1974. The heyday of the canal existed prior to the railroads. Mules towed canal boats, yachts, and vessels along the towpath, in the middle of or alongside the canal. The canals operated with locks and spillways to account for the elevation changes.

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Today you can see all of these elements on the D&R Canal on foot, on bike, on horse, or even driving from lock house to lock house.

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At the edge of Princeton, NJ in the village of Kingston. 

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View of the lock at Kingston. 

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Lock tender’s house, bridge, and the lock at Kingston. 

Further down the canal you’ll come to Griggstown.

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Historic Village of Griggstown, NJ. 

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The view of the canal from the bridge in Griggstown. 

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Wood deck bridge. 

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Griggstown, NJ. The building appears abandoned from the exterior, though a peak through the windows shows that it’s not. NJ State Parks have an ongoing restoration project. 

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The Long House, formerly a store and post office and grain storage. Currently under restoration for an interpretive center. 

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The bridge tender’s station. 

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The 1834 bridge tender’s house, built for the bridge tender and his family. Historically, the bridge tender had to raise the bridge for the boats and mules to pass along the canal. 

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A perfect, tiny front door on the bridge tender’s house. 

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An abandoned state park property in Griggstown, due to flooding damage. 

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More flood damage. Keep out! 

The canal continues on, and whether you travel by foot or bike or car, I’d recommend a visit!  Read more of the D&R Canal’s history here and plan your trip.  Have you been here? Or other canals? The C&O Canal is on my list, too.

Lecture Notes: Canals

Quite often throughout the day I find myself thrilled by a new bit of information that I am learning in class, whether facts in American history, lessons in architectural conservation, or understanding more of how the law operates. One professor always names places that he recommends as a must see: historic sites, engineering feats, villages, factories – he never stops exploring. Sometimes I want to share my notes with anyone who does not have the opportunity to sit in on my classes and hear the lectures that my classmates and I hear. Since I cannot send around my notebooks or recite the lectures, I’ll just share bits here and there. For today: canals.

One of the most fascinating lectures recently was about the canal system in the United States. Did you know that canals preceded railroads as the major successful transportation? Cities were built facing the canals (which sometimes makes the buildings appear backwards to those of us on the road). People lived on canal boats. People traveled on canal boats as a way to experience the scenery at a serene pace. Beginning around the 1820s, the canals opened the United States to western settlement. Canal locks were major engineering innovations. Around the canal locks, towns developed in a linear form. The canal era began to decline around 1860 because they were expensive to build and maintain and the routes were slow, and the railroads were lurking in the background. But canal evidence is still visible on the land today, particularly in our street patterns. Cities filled in the canals to create streets.

Maybe I’m one of the few who has never heard about the extent of and the influence of canals, but I am intrigued by this mode of transportation and the evidence remaining on the land. Looks like I’ve got to go exploring. Here are few links to historic sites about canals:

Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park

History of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal

The Erie Canal (see traces of the Erie Canal)

Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor

Does anyone else love (or have a newfound love for) canals?