Ledgewood, Byram, Stanhope, Waterloo, Saxton Falls

Walking The Morris Canal

The Morris Canal Greenway encompasses part of the historic Morris Canal's alignment and is a cooperative effort of the New Jersey Division of Parks and Forestry, the Canal Society of New Jersey, Waterloo Village and Friends of the Morris Canal. The Greenway's purpose is to preserve the remains of the Morris Canal and its associated natural environment, to interpret canal sites to the public, and to offer recreational opportunities. As you walk the Greenway you will see the remains of canal features, including inclined planes, locks, canal bed, and historic industries and communities directly related to the Morris Canal's operations.

The Morris Canal always was a good place for a stroll. The canal's 102-mile meander across northern New Jersey, from Phillipsburg to Jersey City, was walked by every mule driver for every team that pulled a canal boat from 1831 to 1924.

However, the canal's towpath also served as a route for recreational rambles during its years of operation. I was fortunate to visit the noted Morris Canal historian, James Lee, before he passed away a few years ago. "People did a lot of walking on that canal. I've got pictures of ladies walking along the canal with their white dresses on,'' he told me, describing how they carried umbrellas for shade as their long dresses trailed down to their ankles in the fashion of the day.

View along the historic towpath trail at Starport, a former industrial commercial post on the Morris Canal. The canal is to the left and frequently is filled with water. Photo by Bob Barth.

The canal's role as a place for pleasure jaunts continues to this day, with a number of partners involved in turning portions of the canal into recreational paths. One such effort is the Morris Canal Greenway project, a joint endeavor by the New Jersey Division of Parks and Forestry, the Canal Society of New Jersey, Friends of the Morris Canal and Waterloo Village. The County of Warren and many municipalities along the canal's route also have been involved in preserving remaining sections of the canal, turning them into linear parks so people can learn about the canal and enjoy spending time along its route.

We'll start with a look at the canal from Ledgewood in Morris County's Roxbury Township, through the corner of Sussex County where the canal traveled in Byram and Stanhope, and on to Saxton Falls in Warren County.

First, a bit of history. The Morris Canal was the brainchild of Morristown businessman George Macculloch, who envisioned a commerce route that could surmount North Jersey's rugged terrain to ship coal, iron ore, farm produce and other products across the state. To conquer an unprecedented 1,674-foot change in elevation - 760 feet from the Delaware River at Phillipsburg up to Lake Hopatcong, the summit level, and 914 feet back down to tidewater at Newark Bay - the Morris Canal used a series of locks and a new innovation, the inclined plane. Operated from 1831 to 1924, the Morris Canal was considered an engineering marvel of its time, but, by the end of its life, it had been surpassed by railroads as a shipping route.

Plane 3 West was located in Mt. Olive between Waterloo and Stanhope. The lever at the end of the flume controlled water to the penstock. October 17, 1905.

Although employed on a smaller scale on English canals, the inclined plane was adapted for the Morris Canal and used to conquer changes of elevation

anywhere from 35 feet to 100 feet. The canal boats were floated onto a cradle car, which was pulled out of the water, then up or down on iron rails to the next section of canal. Those iron rails were supported by heavy stone sleepers, which on several of the planes can still be seen, often with a groove worn into them by the thick cable that raised and lowered the cradle car.

Brian Morrell, former vice president of the Canal Society of New Jersey, is one of the many volunteers who has helped to clear the towpath of brush and identify historic features that remain in order to create a walking path on the Morris Canal Greenway. "We have grandiose dreams. The ideal would be the whole 102 miles of the canal,'' Morrell says of the Canal Society's efforts.

However, the initial focus of the society, a 1,300-member organization, has been in the Ledgewood to Saxton Falls area, where large sections of the canal remain intact and where much of it is publicly owned. By establishing a public path along the canal route in that area, the canal society hopes to build an advocacy group of people who use the towpath for recreation, and spread the preservation project both eastward and westward.

Lee, whose often reprinted 1973 book The Morris Canal, A Photographic History and his 1977 history, Tales the Boatmen Told have done much over the years to draw attention to the canal, endorsed the Morris Canal Greenway concept. "I think that's a good idea,'' Lee said, noting it will get people interested in the canal and its history.

While volunteers have spent hundreds of hours in the past several years clearing debris from the canal towpath to create a continuous recreational and historical trail, the state has been buying property to expand the sections of the canal in public ownership. Moreover, State Parks and Forestry staff constructed a timber footbridge to carry the path over a former canal waste gate, a short distance west of Waterloo Village, and interpretive signage is to be erected this spring along the canal near Waterloo. Funded through a grant from the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) and the New Jersey Department of Transportation, the signs include historic photographs, stories, and information about the canal, how it operated, and the lives of the canal workers and businessmen who helped in its creation and success.

A good spot to see features that remain from the canal is in Ledgewood, at Roxbury Township's municipal Canal Park. Located just off Main Street, near the intersection of Routes 46 and 10 at the former Ledgewood Circle, the park includes the remnants of Inclined Planes 2 and 3 East, a long stretch of dry canal prism and a canal basin that still contains water. The canal boats waited in this basin to go up or down the planes.

The Roxbury Township Rotary Club has been restoring the planes, as well as King's Store, which was built in 1815 and served for many years as a canal store. Also located there is the Silas Riggs Salt Box House, which is the headquarters of Roxbury's historical society and operated as a museum.

Heading west, the next major area of interest is Hopatcong State Park at the outlet of Lake Hopatcong. This impoundment, New Jersey's largest, was created from two smaller lakes to be the major water supply for the Morris Canal at its summit level. The dam now in existence was built at the closing of the canal to replace the former dam, and it includes part of the wall of a lock. "You can see the old stonework below,'' Morrell notes.

The towpath is open for walks along a section of the feeder canal that led from the lake to the Morris Canal's Eastern Division, which headed for Newark and Jersey City, and its Western Division, toward Phillipsburg.

Also located at Hopatcong State Park is the Scotch reaction turbine that powered Plane 3 East at Ledgewood, which was moved there for display after the canal closed. "It's the most intact one you can see anywhere,'' according to Morrell, who explains the massive turbine "operated on the same principal as a giant revolving lawn sprinkler.''

At each plane, water from the canal's upper level flowed into the headrace flume to the powerhouse, where it dropped 40 to 50 feet to the turbine. The force of a five-foot diameter column of water dropping that distance, flowing up through the turbine and shooting out of its curved arms, made the turbine spin, powering the cable that pulled the cradle car holding the canal boat on the plane. "This one is so big, you can walk inside the bottom of it,'' Morrell says of the turbine.

Hopatcong State Park includes the Lake Hopatcong Historical Museum in a former lock tender's house. Started by the Hopatcong Historical Society, the museum contains information on the canal as well as the resort hotels that used to line the lakeshore and the famous people who used to summer there, including movie stars and presidents. Beginning in early spring, the museum is open 12-4 p.m. Sundays through mid-June, and again from mid-September through November. More information about the museum is available by calling 973-398-2616.

Historic view of the Morris Canal in Stanhope looking east from the basin at head of Plane 2 West toward the Route 183 bridge and Lake Musconetcong. Courtesy NJ Canal Society.

Stanhope, located in the southern end Sussex County on the Morris County border, is full of features from the Morris Canal. Lake Musconetcong was built as a canal reservoir and the canal crossed the lake with the towpath located on a raised earthen causeway, which is now only visible when the lake is periodically lowered. A stroll through Stanhope starts at Lakeside Park at the lake's dam near Route 183 and Main Street, where the top of the walls of Lock 1 West are visible although the lock has long since been filled in. "It gives an excellent opportunity to see the size of a canal lock,'' Morrell explains, and consequently to get an idea for the size of a canal boat.

Proceeding across Route 183, there is a short section of canal with water in it, leading to a series of buildings that were canal stores and depots. The Stanhope House at the corner of Main and High streets was a stagecoach and canal stop. Canalers would tie up their boats in a basin nearby "and you could walk right across the street into the bar. I imagine it was a pretty hopping place, and it's still a hopping place,'' Morrell remarks, noting the Stanhope House - where Babe Ruth was a visitor - is now a well-known blues club.

While some who worked on the canal were rough and tumble types who would frequent taverns along the way, other boats contained whole families. "It was a mix,'' Morrell notes. On those family boats, the parents would steer while the children would guide the mules on the towpath.

Stanhope was the location of the Musconetcong Ironworks, which used the canal to bring in coal and ore and ship out the finished product. Inclined Plane 2 West ran between Plane Street and Plane View Street, where the stone block sleepers that supported the plane's rails are visible. Morrell notes that a walk along Plane Street gives a good idea of the height and slope of the canal plane. Near the foot of the plane is the foundation of a mule stable where canal mules were housed at night.

According to Lee, the condition of his team of mules reflected on a canal boat captain. When the team was in poor condition, the boat would not make good time in its journey between Phillipsburg and Jersey City, which took an average of five days. Lee said the mules - or horses, which also were used - would walk and tow the boat sometimes until 9 or 10 at night, often until reaching a lock or inclined plane where the captain would tie up for the night. The team would be brought to a barn and given fresh hay. While most teams consisted of two animals, Lee noted that occasionally three mules were used.

"You'd make better time. Maybe you could make the trip in four days'' instead of five, he says, and more trips meant more pay. Also, a larger team could pull a heavier load, increasing the captain's pay per trip.

At the foot of plane, the towpath crossed the Musconetcong River on a concrete bridge, where a half-mile stretch of the towpath is open for walks along a section of canal that has water in it. Morrell says this section of canal, owned by the state and located in Mount Olive, is "one of the best preserved in the state.'' The only major difference from when the canal was in operation is that a row of trees and brush has grown between the towpath and the canal. But Morrell notes canal restoration proponents are hoping to someday remove that vegetation and return the area to what it looked like a century or more ago.

"Because so much of the Morris Canal has been destroyed or radically altered, it's a pretty special experience if you're interested in the Morris Canal'' to walk along that section, Morrell enthuses. Unlike strolling a dry section of the canal prism, "it gives a whole different impression of what it was like.''

Not far from Stanhope is Waterloo Village, an historic hamlet that dates to Colonial days but saw its heyday during the canal era. Now part of Allamuchy Mountain State Park, Waterloo Village provides occasional access to a number of canal features and the Canal Society of New Jersey's museum.

Waterloo Village in the days of the active canal.

"It's about as picturesque as you can get,'' Morrell says of the village, noting the canal lock, inclined plane site, canal store and other buildings give a real sense of Waterloo's role as a canal port. At Smith's Canal Store, built in 1831 along the canal, boats could dock and unload goods directly into the building. The store is open and food is served in the lower level, giving visitors a chance to dine along the canal.

In his 1996 Guide to the Morris Canal in Morris County, author Joseph J. Macasek includes a section on Waterloo Village and notes that a "serene atmosphere is preserved'' in the village's restoration. "But to envision its days as a busy canal town you must see in your mind's eye a canal crowded with boats waiting to pass the lock and ascend the inclined plane, trains of ore cars from the mines dumping their loads at the ore dock and boatmen, trainmen and farmers gathering at Smith's Store for food and conversation.''

The Canal Society's museum includes artifacts, diagrams, models of a canal boat, lock and inclined plane, photos and a video on the Morris Canal, according to Morrell and Dave Detrick. The museum also contains displays on the Delaware & Raritan Canal in central New Jersey.


Nearby accommodations and attractions

  • Kymer's Camping Resort

    Located in Sussex County near the Kittatinny Mountains the camping resort offers park model, cabin and luxury tent rentals as well as trailer or tent campsites with water, electric and cable TV hookups on 200 scenic acres.

    69 Kymer Rd., Branchville

  • Peters Valley School of Craft

    Peters Valley shares the experience of the American Craft Movement with interactive learning through a series of workshops. A shop and gallery showcases the contemporary craft of residents and other talented artists at the Crafts Center... ceramics, glass, jewelry, wood and more in a beautiful natural setting. Open year round.

    19 Kuhn Road, Layton

  • Franklin Mineral Museum

    “The Fluorescent Mineral Capitol of the World" Fluorescent, local & worldwide minerals, fossils, artifacts, two-level mine replica.

    32 Evans Street, Franklin

  • Whippany Railway Museum

    Dedicated to preserving the heritage and history of the railroads of New Jersey through the restoration, preservation, interpretation and operation of historic railroad equipment and artifacts, the museum is open Sundays, April thru October.

    1 Railroad Plaza, Whippany

  • Appalachian Trail, Sunfish Pond


This story was first published: Spring, 2001