NEW JERSEY'S MORRIS CANAL
Contact any engineer today and tell him that you want to build a canal 102 miles long, 5 feet deep, 40 feet wide---and that you want it to start at sea level, go up over 900 feet as you wind through the hills, and then down nearly 800 feet to its outlet. The engineer would raise an eyebrow or two and look puzzled. Now tell him that it would have to be built without bulldozers, steam shovels, or any other large powered mechanical apparatus--just men, shovels, sweat, and whiskey. And, by the way, there'd be no electricity for raising or lowering the canal barges along the way. The engineer would then tell you that you're smoking crack and bid you good day.
But the engineers in the early 1800s didn't back away from such a challenge. Instead they devised a clever system to build and run such a canal, a canal that hauled millions of tons of coal and iron ore across an entire state for 100 years.
The Morris Canal had the most elevation change of any canal in the world---1674 feet! So what technology did the canal designers adopt to get canal barges from one elevation to another? The Morris Canal used a series of locks and inclined planes to affect the change in elevation.
Locks were common technology at the time and well understood. All you need are two gates. Let the boat in one gate, close the gate behind the boat, and open the other gate. The water will rise or fall, bringing the boat to the level of the next leg of its journey. The Morris Canal was littered with locks, and so were many other canals. Locks are still the primary method used today for changing elevation in a canal. No big deal.
But locks of the back woods in the 1800s were limited in the elevation change they could achieve. These were stone sluiceways about 90 feet long and 11 feet wide controlled by wooden gates that were opened and closed by hand. You could get ten or twelve feet out of that perhaps. With a total elevation change of nearly 1700' and the need to climb the abrupt hillside, a new technology was needed. So the Morris Canal added a twist with its inclined planes. Inclined planes were first used in Europe on a small scale basis, but those designs weren't meant for the massive portage of coal and iron as in the Morris Canal. The designers of the Morris Canal had to beef up the inclined plane designs for the Canal to succeed.
Inclined planes start with a cradle, which is similar to a railroad car in the way it moves along the inclined plane. The cradle is sent to the end of the inclined plane and submerged. The canal barge is then floated onto the cradle. The cradle with the barge atop is dragged along the inclined plane to the next section of the canal, and the barge is offloaded from the cradle for the next leg of its journey.
Simple enough. But now you're going to be hauling 70 tons of coal in a canal barge up a hill that has as much as 100 feet of elevation change and is as much as 1600 feet long! Don't ask the mules to do it. No, you don't have a powerful gas engine, nor do you have electricity.
But you have water. Man has been using water for millennia to turn waterwheels to generate some kind of mechanical power. What if you put a huge loop of cable on your inclined plane using a few pulleys and wrapped the cable around a waterwheel to get some power to it? Attach the cradle to the cable, and you're in business!
Ummm...Not really. Unfortunately waterwheels don't have enough power. They're great for grinding corn or running a few cotton gins, but beyond that there's not enough torque to raise 70 tons of ore. Sure, they tried waterwheels on the Morris Canal, but the boat capacity was limited, and by 1850 this was becoming unacceptable. More cargo meant more power, and the engineers had to come up with a solution.
Let's add a few more pieces to the puzzle to what these inclined planes are.
HAULING GOODS ALONG THE CANAL: THE BASICS
For those unfamiliar with the basic workings of a canal similar to the Morris Canal, just think of your local street only filled with water. Instead of a sidewalk you'd have a towpath where a team of mules would walk along pulling a cable tied to the canal boat. No, the canal boats didn't have any engines, just the mules pulling them along.
What type of manpower was required on the Canal? You'd have someone, the captain, often nicknamed the "tiller shark", at the rudder of the canal boat, and you'd have someone onshore driving the mules. The lock tender would handle opening and closing the gates on the locks. At the inclined planes you'd have several people helping out, including a brakeman who rode in a little house on the cradle. The brakeman was there just in case the cable let loose and to assist a heavily loaded downhill boats. (According to one account, eventually the people who ran the canal figured out that the brakeman rarely if ever had to do anything, so eventually they were all sacked, and the tiller shark would take over as brakeman. Talk about saving a nickel! This, however, has not been proven according to records.) Meanwhile the plane tender operated the control valve to the turbine and kept vigil atop the plane house cupola or upper floor to make sure things were running smoothly. You also had the poor buggers working the tar barrels. Barrels of tar were kept warm next to the inclined plane, and the tar was slobbered onto the cable to keep it greased. Fun job...not really.
Those are your basics. What set the Morris Canal apart was the geographical challenges that it overcame and how it did so. In fact, the designs for the Morris Canal were copied and used elsewhere. There are some canals in Europe and Japan that are still operating using the same basic mechanisms, although electric motors have replaced the water turbines.
THE TOUR OF SELECTED SITES, WEST TO EAST
Morris Canal Historian (and Mellotron Professor) Jerry Korb took me on a day long Morris Canal sightseeing trip. We started near his mother's home in Wood Ridge, New Jersey, headed west with various stops eventually to meet up with the Lees at Plane 9 West for a lecture, made it over to the border of Pennsylvania, then east again for more stops.
This was the start of the Morris Canal, marked by a large archway (slightly left of center in the middle photo above, under the trees) leading from the Delaware River.
...where pretty much all that remains of Plane 11 West are a few stones. The rest has been demolished to make way for rail lines and a parking lot.
Plane 9 West is the longest inclined plane on the Morris Canal (about 1600 feet) with the highest change in elevation (100 feet). The property was purchased by James Lee, Sr., one of the foremost authorities on the Morris Canal. Unfortunately at this time James Lee, Sr. is in a nursing home with Alzheimer's and is no longer active in Morris Canal documentation or preservation. His son and grandson, however, have taken over where James left off, and they continue to preserve Plane 9 West and give lectures about it and the Morris Canal.
The Plane 9 West site is amazing. In addition to having one of the original buildings still on site, there are many sleeper stones along the long inclined plane. Near the top is the cable that once towed the canal barges. The Lees have an impressive collection of Morris Canal artifacts as well.
What sets Plane 9 West apart from most other sites is the turbine, still in place in the ground. When James Lee, Sr. purchased the property, he realized that the pit where the turbine was located was filled in with rubble from the days when the canal was demolished and that there was a good chance that the turbine was still there. James, his family, and friends spent decades on and off digging out the immense hole in the ground. What they found shocked them. Yes, the turbine was there (although damaged and tipped on its side), and the chamber was completely intact, including the tail race.
Jerry helped with the lectures, too.
Another interesting bit about Plane 9 West was that it was a double-track. Two cradles meant that two barges could move at the same time, one coming up, one heading down. The other double-track planes along the Morris Canal were at Port Colden (Plane 6 West) and Newark (Plane 12 East).
James Lee, Jr. owns Plane 10 West which also includes a turbine exactly where it should be. Recent evidence indicates another turbine may be in place at Plane 8 East in Montville, but this area is adjacent to developed property and Interstate 287, so further investigation may be difficult.
Take a step back in time and visit Waterloo Village, New Jersey. A tourist attraction now, this was a quaint village in the mid 1800s. It hasn't changed much in over 100 years.
Waterloo greeted the tiller sharks with a general store and tavern, located right at the canal's edge. The canal hit Lock 3 West at Waterloo , took an immediate turn right at a dam, and found itself at Plane 4 West. The boatmen used a conch shell as a horn to announce their arrival at a lock and inclined plane to minimize the waiting times at those locations.
The remains of the old lock tender's house is all that's left of Lock 2 West in Stanhope. The remaining structures were bulldozed for an exit for the Interstate, although the canal was dammed at the top of the original lock, thus preserving a section. If you can find it, there's a pleasant canal walk for you.
This was a very popular spot way back in its heyday. The lock tender, a Mr. William Fluke, had seven daughters, you see...
You will find Plane 2 East in Ledgewood, New Jersey, and it is perhaps one of the best preserved sites in Morris County. You will wander along the inclined plane and find pieces of Pennsylvania coal spilled overboard a century ago. You'll also find globs of tar which they used to use to grease the cable. At the bottom of Plane 2 East is a round basin wide enough for boats to wait or even turn around. And a short way from that---now the road into the parking lot and the parking lot itself---was Plane 3 East, now completely gone. The turbine from Plane 3 East is the one in Lake Hopatcong State Park, seen in the photo above.
Our final stop of the day (before an excellent "canal side" dinner at the Canal House Restaurant) was in Wharton. This is a city park preserving a section of canal about 3/4 of a mile long.
Our first stop of the day, we had the great fortune of running into Jack Kuepfer, a very active member of the Canal Society of New Jersey. He maintains a delightful neighborhood park in Clifton, New Jersey. The park is a welcome respite from the heavily traveled roads in the area and brings visitors friendly ducks and geese, gazebos, places to sit in the shade of the trees, and a place to have a BBQ. Mr. Kuepfer is a youthful 83 and was given an award personally in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan.
This location is very familiar to our fellow Mellotronist Ken Merbler whose folks used to live nearby.
The Morris Canal began to fall into disuse in the early 1900s and was decommissioned in 1924 by the State of New Jersey. Ironically, demolition plans were drawn up by the man who helped engineer improvements to sections of the Canal decades before. Culverts were installed in various sections of the canal so the water could be drained away. Powerhouses were burned to the ground. The tons of iron were pillaged and removed to be melted down again and used for other things, particularly in the 1940s when there was need for it during World War II. The locks were dismantled and filled in. The turbines were either removed or buried in place. Eventually large sections of the Canal were bulldozed and replaced with homes, local roads, and even the Interstate. In the western part of the state the Canal can be seen and followed more easily, but in eastern New Jersey it's nearly all gone.
Some buildings, such as the house at Plane 9 West, are still lived in today, but many of the lock tender's houses are deteriorating foundations or cellar holes or are gone. Most of what is left are some sleeper stones on the inclined planes, what you can see of the tops of the stones on some of the locks, and the occasional short piece of canal along which you can walk. Gone are the tillers, the barges, and the cradles. Mules no longer plod along the towpaths. The turbines no longer turn. The water doesn't flow anymore. All those who lived and worked on the canal are gone, but their memories linger in photos and video, thanks to James Lee, Sr.
Building the canal was an enormous task done with shovels and sweat. Working the canal was a hard, dirty, low paying job and was not well regarded, yet somehow we cannot help romanticize what it was like to be there tending a barge, driving the mules forward, working the locks, or cradling the next boat for its ride up the hill. Perhaps as we move to the future in our fast-paced and hectic lives we're looking back with a longing for these times, which to us are perhaps more serene, simple, and down to earth, in contrast to how many of our lives are today.
Maybe in a few hundred years when they've long since replaced the freight railroads and Interstates with some unimaginable futuristic, faster, and more complex mode of transportation, those in our future will look back on us and the way we do things in the same light as we look at those who built and worked the Morris Canal.