Sunday, November 23, 2014

Discovering more of the Morris Canal at Montville

Since we visited the Jim and Mary Lee Museum of the Morris Canal in Stewartsville back in April, I've been wondering where other, more hidden remnants of the canal's unique technology might be hiding. We may have found at least a little of it.

If you're not a frequent Hidden New Jersey reader or a canal enthusiast, the prospect of finding indications of century-old transportation infrastructure might not seem all that exciting, but bear with me, or take a quick read of the original story. We're talking about an important part of a system that helped drive northern New Jersey's economy in the late 19th century, left to rot until the curiosity of one man revealed it decades later.

In a nutshell, the canal's 23 inclined planes were ingenious machinery that used the power of the canal's own water to lift boats onto cable carts that drew them up or down sizeable hills where ordinary canal locks wouldn't have been practical or maybe even possible. This technology allowed planners to build the canal across some of the hilliest parts of the state, rising and falling more than 1600 feet over a 102 mile route. Coal and other products could then be shipped economically along the canal from Phillipsburg to Jersey City and the New York markets beyond.

Little of the Morris Canal is visible today, but for the occasional brown historic signs that mark its path through Warren, Morris and Passaic Counties. Once the canal went bust in 1924, the State of New Jersey filled in much of the waterway that wasn't appropriated for other purposes like the Newark City Subway. The flumes and towers built to power the plane mechanisms were demolished, their remains tossed into the shafts and tunnels (tailrace and penstock) that once directed water through turbines. Decades later, Lee excavated the plane near Stewartsville, eventually building a fascinating museum and allowing visitors an up-close look at the tunnels where the power was generated.

After learning about the plane technology from Jim Lee's descendents, we've taken note of a few of the locations where brown roadside markers note the former presence of the planes. One of the locations is now marked by a welcome sign to the Morris Canal Greenway in Montville. The site hasn't been excavated, nor is there a canal museum nearby. However, it's a heck of a lot more accessible to the average person, just a short drive from Route 287 on U.S. 202.

Ivan recently drove past and noticed that the sign had been put up at the start of a narrow road that juts off of 202 near a couple of curves in the meandering highway. In that part of the state, 202 winds quite a bit, and at that particular juncture, enough older buildings are clustered to lead you to believe that it had been a town center of sorts many years ago. We parked in a lot next to a small office building and walked up the street to view the plane.

Our lessons from the Stewartsville visit served us well: we quickly recognized the boundaries of the inclined plane, well marked with broad and thick paving stones at the edges. Though sturdy trees now grow where cradle carts once drew canal boats up the hill, we could easily envision how the whole thing worked. I was tempted to kick up some topsoil to see if any of the thick wire cables remained around the property, but there appeared to be no metal remains of the machinery left around. As I learned once we got back to Hidden New Jersey headquarters, members of the Montville Historical Society, the town's Department of Public Works and the Canal Society of New Jersey had worked for two years to clear the area of trash and illegal dumping before the park was dedicated last year. Eagle Scout candidates followed up by constructing a welcome sign and mulching the path to allow visitors to enjoy the park.

For visitors less familiar with the canal and its workings, informative historic markers at the bottom and top of the plane, explain the technology and the impact on the Montville community. Photos on one of them show a built-up commercial area where the undulating terrain forced the canal to cross the path of 202 not once but twice in about a tenth of a mile. The plane we'd discovered, it turns out, was one of two that were built in town to accommodate the canal's hilly path there. This one alone elevated canal boats more than 70 feet in altitude in just a matter of yards.

The Montville Canal Park doesn't have obvious borders or parking, and several houses are nearby, so if you stop by to visit, be sure not to wander too far afield. That said, I couldn't help but wonder whether any of the neighbors have considered taking Jim Lee's lead. To my knowledge, nobody's tried to excavate the powerhouse shaft or the tailrace tunnel that once let water back out to the lower canal. What an adventure that would be!


  1. Everywhere I go I see signs for the Morris Canal and am so intrigued by it, since it's such an important part of New Jersey history. However, I've been too lazy to get out of the car (when I see a Morris Canal sign) and search for the remnants of the canal. Your post is fascinating reading and I've learned a lot about it! I really love your entire blog!

    1. Thanks! We hope you'll find your way out "onto" the canal, however briefly, sometime soon.


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