A locked-up treasure

Wharton

Sunday, October 08, 2006

BY MAURA McDERMOTT

Star-Ledger Staff

John Manna used to take his two sons to a graceful stretch of the old Morris Canal in Wharton, where the boys would catch fish while Manna took in the sight of overhanging trees reflected in clear water.

They'd walk along a wide, curving path, once traveled by mules, that follows the canal for a quarter mile. An old stone ruin looms at the path's end.

Not many people know about the scene, tucked away in Hugh Force Park behind a cluster of homes.

But that could change, if Manna has his way.

A team of archaeologists -- with a little help from Wharton schoolchildren -- has been researching the area for the last two weeks, trying to determine whether a lock at one end of the quarter-mile section of canal can be restored. The research work is funded by a nearly $49,000 grant Manna won for Wharton from the Morris County Historic Preservation Trust Fund.

"It's a part of Morris County's history that's not very widely known," said Ray Chang, program coordinator for the trust fund, which also gave a nearly $20,000 grant to study a potential canal restoration project in Roxbury. "I think it would be very exciting to find out if it actually can be brought back to a functioning condition so people can experience what it was like back in the 19th century."

The restoration of the lock -- which used to raise and lower canal boats by about 10 feet -- also could bring tourists to Wharton's nearby downtown, Manna said.

If it is fully restored, it would be the state's only functioning historic lock, and one of the only ones in the country, according to the Canal Society of New Jersey.

In its day, the 102-mile Morris Canal climbed nearly 1,700 feet as it crossed the state -- some 600 feet higher than the Empire State Building and a greater elevation change than any other canal in the world, according to the canal society. The waterway shut down in 1924 after a century of bringing coal from Phillipsburg to New York harbor.

Only a few, small sections now contain water.

The quarter-mile section in Wharton, off West Central Avenue, was restored in the 1970s.

Last week, archaeologists, teachers and 20 schoolchildren gathered at one end of the canal section, where the old lock -- and the lock tender's stone house -- lie in ruins.

Jim Lee of Trenton-based Hunter Research led the partial excavation of the lock, as well as "shovel tests" to examine the nearby soil.

The middle-school students -- who dug and sifted through soil as part of a school project -- exclaimed as they discovered decades-old household items and bits of coal.

"I think it's great. We're helping archaeologists find out things about Wharton, our own little town," said Geraldine Lopez, 12, a seventh-grader who came across a few pale blue shards of a teacup.

The students aren't the only ones who are enthusiastic about the project.

"No one had set eyes on this (lock) in 80 years since it's been buried all this time, so it was very exciting to see it revealed," said Brian Morrell, president of the canal society.

That quarter-mile is one of the best-preserved sections of the canal, Morrell said.

"Every time I go out there I just marvel at how beautiful it is and how peaceful it is," he said.

The engineering, architectural and archaeological research on whether the lock can be restored is due to be completed by early next year. If it's a possibility, a full restoration would likely cost between $1 million and $2 million, Morrell said. The work could be funded by federal and state grants, he said.

The planners also will seek corporate funding and donations for a paver stone walkway, Manna said.

"It's the sort of thing where you always knew it was there and you knew it was a nice site, but until recently I never realized how special it was," said Manna, a financial analyst who has lived in the borough for more than 20 years, and whose sons are now in college. "It's really a gem that's undiscovered. It's got so much potential."

For more information, call John Manna at (973) 989-0237.

Maura McDermott covers Wharton. She may be reached at mmcdermott@starledger.com or (973) 539-7910.


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