Friday, April 25, 2014

Barges, Edison and local history at the Bread Lock

After our visit to the incredible restoration of Morris Canal Inclined Plane 9W, I wondered whether we had enough energy left for a stop at a related site, Bread Lock Park and the museum that's on the grounds. It's open but once a month, like the Inclined Plane, so it only seemed right to check it out while we were in the neighborhood. It's just down Route 57, in the town of New Village, and I'd originally found it during my quest to find Edison's Portland cement factory.

Morris Canal, Hidden New Jersey, Warren County, Greenway
One end of the life-sized model of a Morris Canal barge.
The park itself is part of the growing Morris Canal Greenway that's being developed under the auspices of the Warren County Morris Canal Committee. Appropriately, the canal prism (the trench the barges traveled in) and tow path curl their way through the property, which also includes a fitness path and picnic area. You can't visit the lock itself -- it's still buried -- but the park has its own delight. A full-sized replica of a canal barge sits near the foundation of the lock-tender's house, accessible enough that you can climb aboard and take the tiller to guide the boat on an imaginary trip. A store that once stood nearby was well known for its baked goods, to the point where canal workers renamed Lock 7 West for the aroma of delicious bread that welcomed them as they approached.

Then there's the museum. Officially the Warren County Historical Learning Center, it's in a ranch-style house, which gives the visitor a little bit of a surreal feeling upon arrival. Signs clearly state the building's purpose, but you still can't help but wonder if you'll be interrupting someone's afternoon by walking in. Frankly, I couldn't help but look for a doorbell.

When you walk in, it's abundantly clear you're either in a museum or someone's ambitious history project. The first room is lined with vintage photos of various historic sites around the county, but the most arresting sight is a linear representation of the canal and the community that surrounds its remnants today. A topographical map of the route through Warren County is posted above a diorama that takes up all of one wall of the room, along with photos of key locations. All of a sudden, the twists and turns of the canal made sense to me. What looks like a drunken cow path on a road map becomes a logical route when elevation changes are included in the equation. In other words, when most of the terrain you have to cover is blocked by hills and valleys, sometimes the most direct route has plenty of curves.

The big map also helped put a lot of things from my earlier visit to Warren County into perspective. For instance, the oddly-named Halfway House Road marks a halfway point along a seven-mile long level stretch of the canal that skims along the side of Scott's Mountain.

Visitors to the Bread Lock Museum can learn a lot about the canal, but there's plenty else about Warren County's history, too. Other rooms tell the story of Shippen Manor and Oxford Furnace (to be covered in a future Hidden New Jersey road trip), but a large photo of Thomas Edison grabbed my attention and pulled me forward, much like the aroma of fresh bread.

Through the use of several panels that lift and retract, the Edison exhibit tells the story of the Portland cement factory at New Village, including the origins of the crushing technology at the Ogdensburg iron mine and the large limestone mining pits nearby that provided crucial ingredients for the cement. Our museum guide also shared the story of a factory employee who ingeniously built his own concrete house near the corner of Route 57 and Edison Road. Rather than employing one of Edison's house molds (as was used to build the Valley View development in Phillipsburg), the man cast blocks from concrete dust he swept up around the plant. He and his family made about 2000 bricks, enough to construct a nice little home at an even lower cost than Edison boasted for the poured concrete homes.

Honestly, we got so caught up in the Edison exhibit (our guide really knew his stuff) that we didn't get the chance to see the rest of the museum rooms before we had to be on our way. We left, though, with the realization that there's a lot more to check out in Warren County than we realized.

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