Building the Canal |  The Feeder Canal |  Transporting Coal |  Decline of the Canal
Timeline of Events

Building the Canal
Most of the D&R Canal system remains intact today and is a reminder of the days when the delivery of freight depended upon a team of mules or steam tugboats. Thirty-six miles of the main canal and 22 miles of the feeder canal still exist, with many historic structures along its entire length.

During the early nineteenth century, when the United States entered into the industrial revolution, canals were built as transportation routes to link resources, manufacturing centers and markets. The D&R Canal was built across central New Jersey to provide an efficient and safe route for transporting freight between Philadelphia and New York.

Since boats could navigate the Delaware River to Bordentown and the Raritan River to New Brunswick, those two cities were selected as the canal's two terminuses. To supply water to the main canal at its highest elevation in Trenton, a feeder canal was dug from Bull's Island on the Delaware River south to Trenton.

Construction of the D&R Canal began in 1830. Laborers - the majority of whom are believed to have been migratory Irish immigrants - were hired to dig, mostly by hand, the main canal and its feeder. The main canal was 44 miles long, 75 feet wide and 7 feet deep. The feeder was 22 miles long, 50 feet wide and 6 feet deep. The canal system was completed in 1834 at an estimated cost of $2,830,000.

The Feeder Canal
Although the feeder canal originally was designed to supply water to the main canal, it was navigated by cargo vessels from the time of its completion. Changes to the feeder canal were made to allow vessels from Pennsylvania's Delaware Division Canal to lock into the feeder canal at Lambertville. Canal boats and barges were pulled by mule teams at first. Steam-powered ships were introduced on the canal around 1843.

Transporting Coal
For nearly a century after it opened, the D&R Canal was one of America's busiest navigation canals. Its peak years were the 1860s and 1870s when Pennsylvania coal was transported through the D&R Canal to feed the city of New York's industrial boom. During this period, 80% of the total cargo carried on the canal was coal. At the same time that construction began on the canal, a railroad route through the central part of the state was also under construction. One year later, in 1831, the canal company and the railroad company merged forming "The Joint Companies." This merger provided protection against competition for both the canal and the railroad. In 1855, the Belvidere-Delaware Railroad completed the laying of track alongside the feeder canal.

Decline of the Canal
By the end of the 19th century, canal use was declining throughout the country. The speed and power of the railroad overtook the romance of the canal era. The D&R Canal's last year of operation at a profit was 1892, but is stayed open through the 1932 shipping season. After the canal closed, the State of New Jersey took it over and rehabilitated it to serve as a water supply system - a purpose it still serves today.

In 1973, the canal and its remaining structures were entered on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1974, over 60 miles of the canal and a narrow strip of land on both banks were made a state park. A portion of the Belvidere-Delaware Railroad corridor from Bull's Island to Frenchtown was added to the park in the 1980s. The park's trail system was designated a National Recreation Trail in 1992.

If you do have any questions please feel free to contact the either of the offices listed below.

Main Park Office
D&R Canal State Park
145 Mapleton Road
Princeton, NJ 08540
Phone: (609) 924-5705
Bulls Island Office
Bull's Island Recreation Area
2185 Daniel Bray Highway
Stockton, NJ 08559
Phone: 609/397-2949