The History of the Morris Canal

Courtesy of the Canal Society of New Jersey

A brief overview of New Jersey’s historic Morris Canal

In 1824 the Morris Canal & Banking Company (MC&BC) was chartered to build a canal that would carry coal, mined in Pennsylvania, to developing markets along the eastern seaboard. The canal would pass through the heart of New Jersey’s iron district and provide the long-needed transportation system that would create new commercial activity and enable rustic settlements like Dover and Rockaway to grow into thriving industrial towns. The canal opened for business in 1831. In 1836 it was expended from Newark to New York Harbor at Jersey City.

The completed canal extended 102 miles. It crossed the rugged highlands of New Jersey, from Phillipsburg on the Delaware River, uphill to its summit level near Lake Hopatcong, and then down to Jersey City. Engineers designed a system of 23 lift locks and 23 inclined planes to overcome the impressive elevation change of 1,674 feet. The canal’s famous water-powered inclined planes were an engineering marvel that enabled canal boats to be raised or lowered up to 100 feet at a time.

Mule-drawn canal boats transported up to 70 tons of cargo and took five days to cross the state. In the heyday of the canal, hundreds of boats carried everything from coal and iron ore to agricultural products. The canal was New Jersey’s first industrial transportation system. It promoted commerce and shaped the economic development of the northern part of the state.

By the early 1900s, the canal became obsolete. However, it took until 1924 to adopt a plan to close and dismantle the canal. The ownership of the canal’s vast water resources, including Lake Hopatcong, Lake Musconetcong, and Greenwood Lake, passed to the state of New Jersey. Today, the Morris Canal Greenway, a partnership between local communities and the Canal Society of New Jersey, seeks to preserve the surviving historic remains of the canal, interpret canal sites, and offer recreational opportunities to the public.

The Erie Canal Museum is partially supported by a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.