Take ‘Path to the Past’ via canal

(by Elizabeth Martin - February 27, 2008)
Let’s take a step back through time. No, a little further. Further… perfect. The year is 1831, Nov. 4 to be precise. This mostly forgotten, though important, date was the day of the first trip along the entire length of the approximately 109 mile long Morris Canal.

The canal passed through numerous towns all throughout Morris and Essex counties, and carried industrial materials from Pennsylvania to eastern New Jersey. The canal was hugely significant at the time, as it was the main way goods from Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania could get to the industrial areas in New Jersey and New York. The canal is largely responsible for the development of the cities and industry.

Then came the railroad, and what was once the most effective way of transporting goods, quickly became outdated. The canal enjoyed its most profitable year in 1866, shortly after the inclined planes were rebuilt and Scotch turbines installed for greater efficiency. The success was sadly to be short lived.

Commercial traffic ceased in 1915. Then, in November of 1922, the State of New Jersey took control of the canal. The canal was drained starting in 1924 and officially abandoned in 1929. It was only fairly recently that historians, archeologists and canal enthusiasts decided to restore portions of the canal.

“Restored in 1976, this half-mile piece is the most striking of the publicly accessible level sections,” according to canalsociety.org. this is referring, of course, to a very fine section of the canal and Lock 2 East located in Hugh Force Park in Wharton, which is currently undergoing some further renovations.

The latest of these renovations is “The Path to the Past” project.
John Manna, long-time Wharton resident and member of the downtown revitalization project, heads the project. When complete, the project will have recreated a 10-foot by 90-foot canal boat out of pave stone in what is now a section of parking area.

“The Path to the Past idea came to me as I walked the tow path along the canal during the archeological investigation in 2006. Each day after work, I would visit the site and run into people who were curious about the project. They were local residents that all seemed to have anecdotal stories about growing up along the canal or a friend or relative that knew the people who lived in the lock tender's house. People all had fond memories of the canal. Because of this, I thought that people may want to express themselves along with providing additional funding for the restoration,” said Manna.

Restoration history
The restoration has undergone many steps from the initial refilling of the canal in 1976. Late in 2006, thanks in part to a grant from the Historic Preservation Trust Fund, a Historic Master Plan and feasibility study was completed. The study found that the area surrounding the canal was rich in early 1800s artifacts. Even better, the study concluded that the lock is likely still intact beneath all those feet of dirt.

Because of these findings, the borough has gained several additional grants. The New Jersey Historic Preservation Trust has awarded them over $37,000 to provide interpretive signage along the canal and lock site to help create a kind of outdoor museum. A grant was also awarded by the County of Morris Heritage Commission to fund conservation of iron artifacts uncovered during the archeological dig. Additionally, a $100,000 award from the Morris County Historic Preservation Trust will make it possible to complete engineering and construction documents and unearth one third of the buried lock.

Wanting to start small, Manna says these are all steps of what will likely be a long project. By uncovering a third of the lock first, the borough will get a real sense of what its condition is and then determine the feasibility of uncovering the whole lock.

Canal’s future
Eventually, the borough is hoping to use this restoration project to revitalize the business district and make Wharton a tourist destination. If Lock 2 East can be restored to operable condition, Manna would like to see canal boat rides become a part of the lock’s charm.

Manna would also like to have the mule path continued around the canal basic and up to the old rail road tracks to form a loop trail.

This canal basin also once played a significant role in Lock 2 East’s history. Since only one canal boat was capable of passing through the narrow lock at a time, the other boats would wait here for their turn to pass into the lock.

In creating the 10-feet by 90-feet pave stone boat, Manna is hoping to, “give people an idea of the size and proportion of a 90-foot double canal boat. I thought that children could stand on the path and fantasize of being a canal boat captain.”

These boats were quite special in history. They were unique because they were really two boats that had been hinged together in the middle. This is because had just one boat been 90 feet long, it would have split due to the strain it underwent on a journey up an incline plane.

When you visit the canal and covered lock, and see the spot where the tops of the lock’s walls are peeking through the grass and soil, it gives you a tremendous sense of history.

Even were it not for these visible stones, when you walk through the area, there is clearly something special here. The original mule path, the finely constructed retaining wall opposite the path and the crumbling old locktender’s house all add to the delightfully old feeling about the place. You know that you are getting just a taste, the tiniest of tastes, of what life would have been like over 150 years ago. Through conservation efforts, Manna is hopeful that they will be able to take that magical feeling and grow it for future generations to come.

Elizabeth Martin can be contacted at: martin@northjersey.com.