Industry’s Gift

A lively exhibit at the Historical Society of Princeton follows the history of the Delaware and Raritan Canal from major transportation route to state park.

By: Ilene Dube
   The Delaware & Raritan Canal is a major recreational resource for residents of central New Jersey. Cyclists, canoeists, runners, bird watchers, people who fish or are just out for a pleasant stroll can wallow in nature, surrounded by rabbits, fox, woodchucks, raccoons, skunk, opossum, deer and 203 species of birds.
   It’s hard to imagine today, but in the 1830s when construction on the canal began, residents were up in arms over its threat to the environment. From Tow Path To Bike Path: Princeton and the Delaware & Raritan Canal is a lively exhibit at the Historical Society of Princeton that follows the history of the canal from major transportation route to state park.
   "In the past, we’ve reached out to different community groups in our exhibitions — Italian-Americans and the African-American and Jewish communities," says Historical Society Director Gail Stern. "This time we wanted to reach environmental and recreational people."
   "People have such fondness for the canal," says society curator Maureen Smyth. "This exhibit feels very personal to them."
   "It’s the environmental folks who saved the canal, and we wanted to bridge the gap with historical-society folk and environmentalists," says Dorothy Hartman, an independent curator who organized the exhibit. "The canal has such a rich history from the 1830s onward. It is a greenway through a very populous state. It devastated the environment of the past, and yet today it is a respite from the suburban world."
   The exhibit has been designed to give viewers the feeling of strolling along the canal. As you enter, the twittering of birds seems to be coming through the window. It’s actually a tape from the Audubon Society, with songs of some of the avian creatures heard along the canal — Baltimore orioles, song sparrows, rose-breasted grosbeaks and catbirds. Stuffed examples of these species, some more than 100 years old, are on loan from the collection of the defunct Princeton University Museum of Natural History. In addition to being a nesting area for 92 species, the canal is a flyway for migrating birds.
   Chartered in 1820 to transport anthracite coal mined in northeastern Pennsylvania, as well as lumber, produce, iron, grain, feed and other commodities, the canal was called "Stockton’s Folly." When its stock didn’t sell, Robert "The Commodore" Stockton and his father-in-law, John Potter, both of Princeton, invested more than $500,000 in it. The first shovel of dirt was excavated from Kingston in 1830, and four years later the D&R Canal opened to through traffic.
   Part of the lore is that Irish immigrants came to build the canal, but Ms. Hartman says the evidence is inconclusive. "The Erie Canal was built by Irish immigrants, but for the D&R Canal, construction was broken up into sections and each section was contracted out individually. They could have hired anyone. No one kept records," says Ms. Hartman, who has her own public history consulting business, planning long-range museum projects. She has also served as education director at Waterloo Village. "We can only surmise from the workers’ Irish names. They could have been here for a decade, having come to work on the Erie Canal."
   She also disputes the lore that Irish victims of the 1832 cholera epidemic were buried alongside the canal. "Serious canal historians say that wouldn’t be done — decaying bodies could have made the side of the canal cave in. There is ongoing research to document this."
   Vintage photographs in the exhibit show the tents along the canal where workers, whatever their nationality, lived during construction. They earned $1 to $2 a day, depending on skill level.
   The canal disrupted the lives of property owners along its route, from Bordentown on the Delaware to New Brunswick on the Raritan. Farms, wooded areas and city landscapes were all compromised. Fourteen locks were built to overcome changes in elevation. It was originally built 7-feet deep and 75-feet wide, but was later expanded to accommodate steamboats.
   Brightly painted wooden models of the canal’s builders are on loan from the Canal Society of New Jersey. Commissioned by William McKelvey, an avid canal historian, they were made by Edwin LeRoy and in the collection of the Griggstown Historical Society until flooded by Hurricane Floyd. The models were rescued by one of the members and add three-dimensionality to this exhibit that brings history to life with vintage black-and-white photographs, old newspaper clippings and maps, a coal-dredge-boat anchor, a "Nighthawker" barge lantern and contemporary color photos of the D&R Park.
   "Life along the canal had a rhythm all its own," reads one of the wall plaques. "The cadence of mule hooves along the towpath and the slow steady movement of boats marked the boatman’s day. Locktenders attuned their ears to the sound of the horn marking the approach of a boat."
   As a direct result of the canal, Princeton Basin became a thriving little community with canal company toll offices, a sash and blind factory, Scott Berrien’s General Store, Billy Lynch’s Bottle House and the Railroad Hotel.
   Not only was the canal used as a swimming hole in the summer, but the Princeton University Rowing Club practiced in the canal until the late 19th century. When traffic on the canal became congested, the club disbanded. Then, in 1903, Pittsburgh steel baron Andrew Carnegie decided to help by giving the money to build a lake. The Princeton University Rowing Association held its first regatta on Carnegie Lake in 1907. Vintage postcards show rowers, skaters, the boathouse and bridges along the lake.
   Sailing vessels with tall masts used the canal as an inland waterway, as did privately owned yachts en route to Princeton University events. Eventually, the canal fell victim to the railroad as a means of transporting goods. After 1900, Stockton’s Folly no longer turned a profit. By 1929, commercial traffic declined and the canal was used primarily for pleasure boating.
   In 1933, the Pennsylvania Railroad Co., then operator, abandoned the canal. The state took possession in 1934 and determined the best use of the canal was as a water source for industry and, later, potable water. Today, more than one million residents get part of their water supply from the canal.
   The 1970s was the beginning of the environmental movement, and as environmentalists rallied for conservation of natural resources, the D&R Canal Commission, headed by James Amon, was formed to campaign against further degradation. It also sought to protect adjacent land from encroaching development.
   The result: the canal was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and designated a state park. Princeton Township and Princeton University purchased 10 acres along the canal in West Windsor to create Turning Basin Park, with the Historical Society participating in the planning and restoration efforts.
   "Walk along the canal today and you will be surrounded by nature, but if you listen carefully, you will hear the sound of the past," writes Ms. Hartman. "The soft thud of the mules’ hooves on the towpath, the clank of the blacksmith’s hammer on metal, the bellow of the horn as a boat approaches a lock. It was a time when the canals were the highways of commerce."
From Tow Path to Bike Path: Princeton and the Delaware & Raritan Canal is on view at the Historical Society of Princeton, Bainbridge House, 158 Nassau St., Princeton, through April 2003. Gallery hours: Tues.-Sun. noon-4 p.m. Closed weekdays Jan.-Feb. For information, call (609) 921-6748. On the Web: