The Delaware and Raritan Canal has always been a popular subject to write about. Its history is richly saturated within the rip-rap stone crevasses of its towpath and waterway.
Meandering like a glistening ribbon across 44 miles of countryside from the Raritan Bay in New Brunswick to the Crosswicks Creek in Bordentown, the main section of the canal is a true marvel of engineering. In addition, its feeder canal which collects water and supplies it to the main canal, stretches for 22 miles along the east bank of the Delaware River from Trenton to Bull’s Island near Frenchtown.
The concept for building the canal goes back many generations. Its viability was based on its approach to shorten ship travel from the major cities of New York to Philadelphia by 100 miles, thus eliminating the need for treacherous open ocean navigation. It was a necessity born from serious businessmen and politicians.
In 1816, the New Jersey legislature appointed a commission of three men to authorize the survey of a feasible land route that would maximize the canal’s efficiency. Following months of surveying through brush and wet terrain, the commission concluded that having a canal was more advantageous than natural waterways since it didn’t require much water to be drawn from streams.
However, raising necessary capital for construction stalled. Years passed without any government action. It wasn’t until the instant success of the famed Erie Canal in 1825 that the market for building new transportation routes in the eastern United States was ushered in with great enthusiasm.
Five years later, the canal project for central New Jersey was reintroduced by state legislators that lobbied for the creation of its charter. This time, legislation passed and budgeted $1.5 million of stock for construction. Furthermore, a compromise was reached between the Delaware and Raritan Canal Company and its fierce adversary, the Camden and Amboy Rail Road and Transportation Company, whereas both companies entered a 30-year partnership as protection against competition.
Known as the “Joint Companies,” investors eagerly moved to begin the construction phase on both ventures. Understanding their independent responsibilities, the role of the railroad concentrated on passenger service while the role of the canal concentrated on freight service. It was an incredible undertaking, with many unknown variables.
Following the completion of the Erie Canal, an engineer from New York State named Canvass White (1790-1834), who was sent to England years earlier on the advice of New York Governor Dewitt Clinton to study their extensive canal system, was appointed Chief Engineer of the Delaware and Raritan Canal. After reviewing the findings of the original 1816 commission, he concurred with its recommendations. He also proposed that the dimensions of the canal be 70’wide and 8’ deep with a minimal number of working locks that warranted a faster trip.
A feeder canal was deemed essential to the project since it would supply a flow of water by gravity into the main canal at Trenton. Having acquired a great deal of knowledge as an engineer, White was indeed a detailed-minded project manager whose expertise was high in demand. Around this time, he was also the Chief Engineer of the Union Canal and the Lehigh Canal in Pennsylvania and a consulting engineer for the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.
By the summer of 1830, work on excavating the canal began below the village of Kingston. The reason for the location was the fact that the King’s Highway (Route 27) was probably the most heavily traveled road in the state at the time, and was readily accessible to laborers, horses, and equipment. Stone from a nearby hill provided the lining for Lock No. 8, the towpath, and other purposes.
All of the construction was done with picks, shovels, wheelbarrows and horse-drawn scrapers supplied by the might of Irish immigrants that were arriving in America on a daily basis. Some immigrants gained experience on the Erie Canal or other canal projects and traveled town to town seeking better wages.
The Delaware and Raritan Canal project for example offered good pay for strenuous work: $1 a day and 25 cents for each tree and stump removed. It is said that almost 5,000 men joined its labor force.
But the price came with the ultimate sacrifice. By 1832, a rapidly spreading disease known as cholera, fatally struck down many laborers working on the canal. Abhorred health conditions and the lack of sanitary facilities exacerbated the epidemic to residents of nearby towns.
Although the disease diminished as colder weather approached, laborers that perished were hastily buried along the canal banks with either crude headstones or in unmarked graves. With unfortunate incidences such as this, some people seriously pondered if the canal would ever be finished.