Delaware & Raritan Canal
Early 19th Century Map of the D&R Canal through New Jersey
Historical picture of the D&R Canal in New Jersey. The Canal opened in 1834.
Today, the D&R Canal is part of the D&R Canal State Park.
Backstory and Context
The trip from Philadelphia to New York proved to be an arduous trip for the more than a century before the Delaware & Raritan Canal (D&R Canal) opened in 1834. The canal opened at a time when the mid-Atlantic region, as well as the entire nation, enjoyed a boom in canal construction, often referred to as the Canal Age. As with most canals, immigrants comprised most of the laborers that worked in dangerous conditions for low pay. The completion of the canal helped move people and resources such as coal.
Thoughts of building a canal across New Jersey dates back to 1676, and Pennsylvania founder William Penn suggested it during the 1690s. The canal would shorten the trip between Philadelphia and New York by 100 miles, which was even more daunting in the years before the automobile. However, genuine efforts to develop a canal had to wait until the nineteenth century. The construction of the Erie Canal from 1817 to 1825, which effectively connected New York City to the Great Lakes, served as the model for numerous canal-building projects that arose during the mid-nineteenth century. The success of the Erie Canal fostered a strong desire by those in places such as Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland to develop their own canal network.
One year before the Erie Canal opened in 1825, the New Jersey Legislature had charted the Canal Company, but that effort failed to materialize. The Erie Canal's success only pushed the state to further push for a canal. In 1830, simultaneous charters were granted by the legislature to the Delaware & Raritan Canal Company and the Camden and Amboy Railroad and Transportation Co. (The two companies merged in the process of building the canal.) Construction of the canal followed those charters, following the path once envisioned by William Penn. The 44-mile-long channel -- fed by a 22-mile-long feeder canal -- opened in 1834 and connected New Brunswick to Trenton and, in a broader sense, Philadelphia to New York.
Part of the funds provided for the canal construction came from the wealthy Robert F. Stockton, the grandson of Richard Stockton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. However, while wealth helped fund the construction, the work was done primarily by 3,000 to 5,000 cheap laborers comprised mainly of Irish immigrants using hand tools to dig the canal and build stone walls. They endured numerous hardships, were paid very little, faced persistent threats of job loss, worked in harsh conditions, and they suffered through two Cholera epidemics. The lack of sanitation helped fuel an 1833 cholera outbreak and led to the creation of a temporary hospital, and forced the charter company to improve conditions.
After the canal opened, it matured into one of the most prolific coal highways by the time of the Civil War, exceeding the Erie Canal in terms of pure tonnage the amount of coal transported. In fact, the mid-Atlantic canals evolved into the country's most concentrated regional canal network by the 1860s and 1870s. However, just as its usefulness peaked, the emerging railroad industry of the 1870s and 1880s slowly ate away at the need for transporting coal on the river. The D&R canal remained in operation until 1932, but its 1860s-1870s numbers proved to be its peak.
During the heart of the Great Depression, after decades of railway construction and development, the canal was largely abandoned. Parts of the feeder canals and central canal were either filled or naturally evolved into non-navigable sections. Today, like many old canals, its purpose is not that of commercial navigation but recreation. Trails, parks, and locations for outdoor-activities constitute what is now the D&R Canal State Park.
Byrne, James Patrick, Philip Coleman, and Jason Francis King, eds. Ireland and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History: a Multidisciplinary Encyclopedia, Vol 2. Santa Barbara: ABC - CLIO, 2008.
Historic Sites Survey Team. "Nomination Form: Delaware and Raritan Canal." National Register of Historic Places. nps.gov. May 11, 1973. https://npgallery.nps.gov/GetAsset/4332e4d4-30fb-42bc-ab4e-76c1a7d547e8
Shaw, Ronald, E. Canals For A Nation: The Canal Era in the United States, 1790-1860. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 1990.