Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The landlocked ports of Warren County

If you've driven along Route 57 in Warren County, you may have noticed some curious names on road signs. Within the larger towns are a few hamlets whose names start with the word "Port": Port Colden, Port Warren, Port Murray. While the Musconetcong River flows not far away on the border with Hunterdon County, it's not nearly sizable enough to support heavy traffic, and certainly not three ports, let alone one.

And, well, none of these communities are actually on the Musconetcong. So why the name?

Each of the communities owes its existence to the Morris Canal, the engineering marvel built in 1824 to connect Phillipsburg and Jersey City to transport Pennsylvania coal east and New York merchandise west. The canal itself should be the subject of a future Hidden New Jersey account (which Ivan keeps threatening to write), but for the sake of today's story, let's just say that since its abandonment in 1924, much of the route of the Morris has been obliterated. Portions in Newark and Jersey City have been transformed to other transportation uses, but as for the rest, with the exception of small portions here and there, you'd need a map.

Not pentagonal, but a Morris Canal
marker, nonetheless.
In certain parts of Morris and Warren Counties, you can't miss the occasional brown pentagonal sign marking the route. It seems to cross some roads so often you question the sobriety of the original planners. Without the signs, though, only a trained eye would be able to identify the brush-lined depressions as the bed of the old canal.

“Port” towns grew at some of the canal locks or planes where mechanical devices helped barges adjust to the inevitable ups and downs of the North Jersey terrain. Named for executives of the Morris Canal & Banking Company, Ports Colden and Murray were founded in the hopes they’d become boom towns as barge traffic increased.

Today, they’re not much more than enclaves of homes, some older than others. Streets named "Canal," "Lock," "Towpath" or "Plane" hint at what drove the creation of the communities, but when I visited recently, I found little left to indicate any prosperity the canal might have brought.

You’d be forgiven for missing Port Colden from Route 57. Though a sign points to the appropriate turn-off from the westbound lane, it’s easy to overlook, and the elevation of the highway obscures the most obvious structure from the road, the Port Colden Manor. Both stately and in need of some TLC, the building makes an impressive introduction to town.

Port Colden Manor, a shadow of its former grandeur.
Port Colden had apparently already suffered from the loss of the canal by the time the Federal Writers Project folks got around to visiting in the depths of the Great Depression. The WPA Guide to 1930s New Jersey describes it as "a ghost town; its few old homes and yellow hotel are a faint echo of the days when the community was a port on the now abandoned Morris Canal."

I didn’t see anyone outside as I drove around, but to call Port Colden a ghost town is a bit of a stretch. Yes, some of the older properties could use some attention, but the grade school and a newly restored community church clearly indicate that there’s life there, despite the long-ago loss of the canal. A sign just off the highway notes that the enclave is a historic district; hopefully that’s giving some impetus to bringing some attention.

Along the canal in Port Murray.
To the west, Port Murray was once considered to be the most important village in the area since it hosted both the canal and the only railroad station for miles. Today, the community seems a bit more lively than Port Colden, if just a little. Main Street boasts a couple of specialty stores as well as a post office and the municipal offices for Mansfield Township. An older building at the corner of Main Street and Towpath Road looks as if its storefront has been unused for a while but could have been a great general store and supply stop for barge crews. It was once, in fact, Perry's Store, where cargo was loaded onto and removed from barges directly from a second floor bay.

The thing that struck me about both communities was the lack of daily commerce -- places you could walk to for a gallon of milk, a dozen bagels or maybe a morning coffee. I guess it's just a matter of progress. Warren County isn't exactly McMansion central, but housing developments have sprung up over recent years, bringing big box stores and strip malls with them. Maybe the corner stores and delis have disappeared as the big Shop Rites and Walmarts have moved in and people would rather drive than walk to do their shopping. Either way, it's kind of a shame. How cool would it be to get your morning paper in the same place where canal mule tenders once bought their provisions?


  1. There is at least one place where you can shop / eat in exactly the same place as Morris Canal boatmen / mule tenders once bought their provisions! It is the old Peer's Store (near Valley View School) on Diamond Spring Rd. in Denville. I believe there was a canal lock at the site. I haven't been there in years, but the last time I was, walking through the door of that quaint general store store was like stepping back 150-years. I think it is currently more a deli than a general store, but I think they have retained some of the historic charm.

    1. Thanks, Denice - we'll have to check that one out!


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