Continued from last month's column.
In 1834, the 66-mile Delaware and Raritan Canal and feeder were completed at an estimated cost close to $3 million. The opening ceremonies with New Jersey Governor Peter Vroom and other dignitaries in attendance toured the canal on barges borrowed from the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal Company.
Starting at Lock No. 1 in Bordentown, the lavishly decorated fleet was towed by teams of mules to the town of New Brunswick where speeches, parades, and a 24-gun salute were planned.
Indeed, this transportation enterprise experienced considerable success. The 1860s and 1870s proved to be its most profitable decades as close to two million tons of freight, especially anthracite coal, were transported through its waterway.
In 1866, its net earnings surpassed those of the Erie Canal’s best year as 3 million tons of cargo passed through its locks. Although it wasn’t as long as its counterpart, the ingenuity of its construction rested on wider traffic lanes, deeper channels, and the implementation of A-framed swing bridges. The Delaware and Raritan Canal maintained a healthy annual profit until 1893.
Business was extremely brisk along Bordentown’s natural harbor and canal terminal. William and Frank Clinton established the town’s first shipyard in 1856.
Captain D. S. Mershon possessed a lucrative talent for fabricating sloops, schooners, and tugboats. This led to a government contract for building two gunboats during the Civil War.
Even a curious floating church, designed by Clement Dennington and known as “The Church of the Redeemer,” graced its presence along the docks. Wherever one looked, there were more vessels on the water than the water itself.
Along a spit of land leading to the canal was the company office, a toll collector’s office, a lock tender’s house, and mule stables. One of the most unusual occupations pertaining to the canal near Bordentown was that of a “ratter” who was instrumental in trapping muskrats year round due to the extensive damage that was left in the soft mud of canal banks.
This soil also created havoc in the construction of the original lock. Made of stone and mortar, the workmanship failed and it tumbled into the Crosswicks Creek. Several years later, the location for a new lock was moved closer to the Delaware River and replaced with heavy timber frames that were floated to the canal entrance and fixed in place with iron spikes and backfill. Today this site contains the only wooden lock along the canal.
Above the hill that overlooked so much activity was a dirt street with simple frame homes on meager lots that were made affordable to the Irish immigrants that spilled sweat and blood for the canal and railroad. Known as Thompson Street after its original landowner, George Thompson, it gained notoriety as “Irish Town” where rowdy characters raised hell as sure as they raised their bottles of liquor on almost any given night. It was a rambunctious neighborhood where some untested constables feared to tread after dark.
In conclusion, the railroad and the advent of the automobile rendered the canal obsolete. After the close of the 1932 shipping season, it never opened again and was eventually abandoned. In 1944, it was rehabilitated as a water supply system that served hundreds of thousands of households with clean water. In 1973, the canal was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The following year it was established as one of our most beloved state parks.
Just as a ribbon compliments a gift, this significant ribbon of water called the Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park truly compliments a gift of natural and recreational beauty for all the people of New Jersey to enjoy.