Events to mark D&R Canal’s 175th anniversary

By Michele S. Byers
Our state has a wonderful tradition of turning former transportation routes into recreational trails. It’s a great way for people to experience history and nature while getting some needed recreation and exercise. And nowhere is this more true than at a real New Jersey man-made wonder, the Delaware & Raritan Canal.
    This long and magnificent canal turns 175 years old in 2009. To mark the milestone, a number of organizations will collectively hold a yearlong celebration packed with events — including walks, an art show, a concert, lectures, bike rides and bridge tender house tours — for residents of all ages.
    Officially opened for public use on June 25, 1834, the D&R Canal allowed for faster and safer trade between eastern Pennsylvania and New York City. Before the canal, the most efficient way to transport Pennsylvania coal to New York was to haul it to the Delaware River, load it on a ship, and make the long and sometimes treacherous journey downstream, around Cape May and back north along the New Jersey coast.
    The main 44-mile section of the canal connected Bordentown, at the northernmost navigable point of the Delaware River, with New Brunswick, at the westernmost navigable part of the Raritan River. A 22-mile feeder canal that began in Milford, upstream of Bordentown, kept the main canal water levels high enough that barges didn’t get stuck.
    Alas, the storied days of canal boats pulled by mules were short-lived. By the late 1800s, railroad lines crossing New Jersey had largely made canal transportation obsolete.
    Fortunately for New Jerseyans, the D&R Canal didn’t meet the same fate as many others of its era, including the Morris Canal to the north. Instead of being filled in and paved over, most of the D&R Canal was preserved as a historic, recreational and water supply resource.
    Today, the Delaware & Raritan Canal State Park is one of New Jersey’s most popular destinations for walkers, bicyclists, boaters and nature lovers. It is still dotted with many historic structures, including the homes of former bridge and lock tenders. One stretch that runs through rural Griggstown and Blackwells Mills in Franklin Township does not look much different than it did in the 1800s. Other stretches are surrounded by reminders of the 21st century, like the section that is crossed — twice — by Interstate 287.
    Much of the trail along the feeder canal is built on an abandoned rail corridor, the Belvidere-Delaware Line, known to locals as the Bel-Del.
    The D&R Canal Commission was created in 1974 — the same year as the State Park — and is charged with protecting the water quality of the canal, as well as the natural and historic character of the Canal Park and its surroundings.
    Now is your chance to get out and experience nature and history at the same time, along the canal. Here are a few of the events coming up as part of the 175th anniversary celebration:
    Saturday, Jan. 10 — Concert at the historic Prallsville Mills on Route 29 in Stockton.
    Jan. 19-31 — D&R Canal Art Show, featuring paintings, drawings, photos and three-dimensional artwork inspired by the historic sites and natural beauty along the canal. The show will be held at the Prallsville Mills.
    Friday, Jan. 23 — “New Jersey Owl Prowl,” a nighttime walk along the canal, led by the New Jersey Audubon Society.
    Saturday, Jan. 24 — Visit the Port Mercer bridge tender’s house in Lawrence Township and learn more about the D&R Canal’s past from a state park historian.
    Saturday, Feb. 7 — Kids’ Groundhog Day Celebration at the D&R Canal’s Kingston office.
    Saturday, Feb. 14 — Valentine’s Day party at the historic Blackwells Mills Canal House in Franklin Township.
    Take some time in the new year to appreciate the D&R Canal for the marvel that it is. For detailed information about the history of the canal, and the events that will celebrate its 175th birthday, visit
Michele Byers is executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. For more information, contact her at [email protected], or visit New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s Web site at