It started a couple of weeks ago, when I traveled Route 57 through Warren County to find remnants of the old Morris Canal. Once-busy port towns revealed small pieces of their past, while a wrong turn outside of Montana brought me to a lonely stretch of the canal hidden in the woods of Scott's Mountain. As interesting as it all was, something was missing: the actual mechanical workings of the canal. Without that, you're just looking at a series of long ditches. Yeah, they're historical, but they show no indication of why the Morris Canal was such a big deal.
And it was a big deal, and still is now, 90 years after it went out of business. You see, to traverse its 102 mile run across north-central New Jersey, the Morris Canal had to surmount a total altitude change of 1674 feet (760 feet up from Phillipsburg to Lake Hopatcong, and then down 914 feet from the Lake to Jersey City). Canals generally use locks to float watercraft to a higher altitude or down to a lower one, as the Delaware and Raritan Canal did to overcome its 55 foot altitude change.
Having to manage a lot of height in a relatively short range, the engineers designing the Morris had to come up with something much different. Sure, they built locks to handle the smaller elevation rises, but the really pronounced peaks and valleys were addressed with a system of inclined planes that made the Morris a technological marvel for its time.
|Plane 9W is just 4.5 miles from the canal's start in Phillipsburg.|
Each inclined plane (and there were 23 of them over the route of the canal) did the work of the many locks that would be needed to make up for that degree of altitude change. The vast majority are gone now, some having been paved over as roads like Plane Street in Boonton.
|Plane 9W's reaction-type or "Scotch" turbine was designated|
a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark in 1979.
Jim, his family and friends set to work excavating the workings over the course of many years, clearing out the turbine chamber and finding scores of artifacts. In the process, Jim became the foremost expert on the Morris Canal, welcoming visitors to check out the old plane and turbine room. Though he died in 2007, his family continues to share the story on the property, which is now a Warren County park. They make special arrangements for school groups and the like, but it's open to the general public only seven times a year, on the second Sunday of the month, from April to October.
|The 5.5 foot circumference tailrace took water from the turbine|
back out to the canal at the lower end of the plane.
Next, there's the interpretation of the site. We were fortunate to get a tour from Jim's grandson, Jim Lee III, who's an industrial archaeologist when he's not educating people about the canal. First sharing the history and rationale for building the canal (a story for a future Hidden New Jersey entry), he led us through the technology behind the inclined plane in a way that revealed the ingenuity behind the designers' solution to a tough problem. Even if you're mechanically challenged, you'll come away with a clear understanding and a huge respect for the canal's builders.
|A portion of the steel tow cable.|
The last stop on the tour is the Jim and Mary Lee Museum, a room within the plane tender's house. While plenty of artifacts and photos are on display, I have to say my favorite was the conch that once belonged to Mary Lee's grandfather, who was one of her many relatives to work on the canal. Sea snail shells may seem out of place in western New Jersey, but they were a common sight along the Morris. Barge crew would sound the conch's trombone-like note to alert lock and plane tenders of their imminent arrival. As Jim demonstrated, they make quite a commanding sound when you blow into one end.
As an appreciator of all things innovative in New Jersey, I found it heartening to see how many people stopped by to visit Plane 9 and the museum during the hour or so that we were there. Such an important site, interpreted so well, deserves a large audience. If you'd like to visit or arrange a tour for a group, check out the Morris Canal website for more information.