Rolling on the Canal

Filmmaker Chris Allen pays tribute to the Delaware & Raritan Canal.

By: Jim Boyle


TimeOFF/Mark Czajkowski
Chris Allen stands alongside the D&R Canal. His 30-minute documentary on the waterway, Flashback, airs on Princeton Community Television June 26, 27 and 30.

   Thousands of drivers, bikers, joggers and boat captains encounter the Delaware & Raritan Canal in a given year, appreciative of the aesthetic splendor it provides, but perhaps not fully aware of its historical significance.
   "A lot of people don’t know the canal’s history," says local filmmaker Chris Allen. "The lower part of the canal was the industrial center of Princeton for many years."
   In an effort to make more people aware of the canal’s environmental and historical impact on the area, Mr. Allen filmed and produced Flashback, a 30-minute documentary on the waterway airing on Princeton Community Television June 26, 27 and 30 at 8 p.m., soon available on VHS or DVD at the Historical Society of Princeton.
   The film is part of a larger effort to explore and present a thorough understanding of Princeton’s history. The project began during fall 2002, after the Historical Society of Princeton opened a similarly themed exhibit earlier that year. As part of the year-long display, members of the society asked Mr. Allen to cut and edit home movies submitted by volunteers.
   "When they asked residents to submit any tapes or 16mm film they had," says Mr. Allen, "there wasn’t a big response. That’s when I began to talk to Anne Reeves (director of the Arts Council of Princeton) about making a documentary about Princeton, starting with the canal."
   Ms. Reeves informed Mr. Allen of the project and asked if he would be interested in creating a short, informative film. Through the efforts of project director Maureen Smyth and guest curator Dorothy Hartman, Mr. Allen had plenty of material to comb through.
   "I began shooting last fall," he says. "I interviewed five people and went in and shot the exhibit. I had to move fast before it came down. We wanted to get it on the air and sync it with the show."
   After an introductory message by Ms. Reeves, Mr. Allen intertwines the interviews with home movies and photos supplied by the historical society to tell the rich story of the D&R Canal. All of his footage was shot on a digital camera and edited on his computer.
   Experts such as Howard Green, research director for the New Jersey Historical Commission, Linda Barth, author of a book analyzing the canal’s history, and James Amon, executive director of the D&R Commission, detail how it was used from the 1830s to the 1860s to ship large amounts of anthracite coal to New York, helping to power the Industrial Revolution. Since then it has turned into a 70-mile state park as well as a source of drinking water. They discuss how the canal’s formation directly impacted Princeton’s economy and how the community began to spring up following its creation.
   The film takes the viewer through the canal’s functional lifespan, ending when the Pennsylvania Railroad Co. bought the canal, not for the waterway but for the land alongside so it could build railroads. This effectively put the canal out of business, mainly because it could not run during the snowy winters.
   The filmmaker hopes to encourage viewers to respect the natural beauty.
   "It’s constantly being encroached upon," he says. "A lot of the residents who live along the canal want to build on it, but fortunately the environmental commissions have a lot of sway and have been able to preserve it."
   While the film was completed in April, just as the Historical Society was closing the exhibit, all parties decided the idea was a good one and set in motion plans to have another documentary produced for the current exhibit, Lost Princeton.
   While attending New York University Film School, Mr. Allen, a Rocky Hill native, worked as production assistant for TV movies, including Garson Kanin’s Hardhat and Legs and Arthur Miller’s Playing for Time, which aired on PBS and starred Vanessa Redgrave.
   Following his 1979 graduation, Mr. Allen was pulled toward more non-fiction oriented subjects, he recounts from the living room of his Princeton home, which he shares with Sue Bannon, a graphic designer, and her son, Oliver. As technology improved, he became more independent.
   "I love the look of film," he says, "but it’s very expensive. Not just the equipment, but even the cost of getting the prints made. With digital video and computers, you can do everything yourself."
   Mr. Allen offers documentary-style films for family members celebrating a milestone birthday or anniversary. He treats the subjects the same as with the D&R Canal, conducting interviews with family members and incorporating old photos, videotape and 16mm home movies.
Flashback airs on Princeton Community Television/TV 30 June 26, 27 and 30 at 8 p.m. The Historical Society of Princeton is located at 158 Nassau St., Princeton. For information on ordering Flashback, call (609) 921-6748. Mr. Allen can be contacted about family and community documentaries at (609) 203-0622.