A HISTORIC PLACE
"You have constructed for sixty-five miles, through the heart of New Jersey, the most spacious canal, which adds year after year, thousands to the value of her agricultural interests, while it carries with it wealth and happiness to her citizens generally, and which may be referred to as a lasting monument of the sagacity of New Jersey statesmen, and of your patriotism and munificence."
James Parker - 1840 Report of the Joint Board of Directors to the Stockholders
The Birth of a Canal
During the early nineteenth century the industrial and transportation revolutions were in their infancy but the expectations of innovation, efficiency, growth and wealth that they promised would soon overtake the American imagination and change its society as the century progressed. One such grand transportation achievement was the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. Its instant success ignited “canal fever” across the young country – canal projects reaching inland markets exploded across the eastern seaboard. These man-made waterways opened grand possibilities of expansion, development and untapped western markets. They were the new exciting internal improvement discussed by many – efficient transportation routes that could link resources, manufacturing centers and markets. And yet, while canals were new to the United States, they were well established and used across Europe and Asia. New Jersey’s Delaware and Raritan Canal was envisioned as just such an improvement. An inland waterway that reached across central New Jersey to provide a direct, quick and safe transportation route for the movement of freight between Philadelphia and New York. The idea had success written all over it.
While New Jersey roadways may have expanded from the early colonial period through the 18th century, they had not greatly improved by the 19th century. Travel remained difficult and always weather dependent. New Jersey lay between two busy centers of commerce – New York and Philadelphia – and the movement of goods, produce and local commodities between them was big business. Overland shipments could be laborious and prone to delays due to poor roads. Ocean transport, while more reliable, could take up to two weeks even in good weather. For this reason, merchants and businessmen like John Neilson and his son James of New Brunswick, were interested in and supported transportation improvements such as turnpikes, toll roads, and especially canals.
The turn of the 19th century ushered in the beginnings of the turnpike and steamboat eras which further served to improve transportation connections from New Brunswick to New York and Trenton to Philadelphia. Men such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, who established a successful steamboat line in New Brunswick, made their fortunes from these innovations. With backing and investment from the business and political communities, improvements to facilitate the ease of movement for people and products began early in the century. In 1807 the Trenton and New Brunswick Turnpike or “Straight Turnpike” (Route 1 today) opened for operation and while its surface was gravel, stone and timber, the majority of roads crossing central New Jersey remained little more than improved dirt paths. The Straight Turnpike was an improvement and viable alternative, but transportation was still a laborious and costly proposition. Change, however, was on the horizon.
The opening and quick success of the Erie Canal in New York ushered in fevered interest in canal building here in New Jersey. Talk of a canal across the central part of the state, essentially expediting trade between New York City and Philadelphia, was not new and is thought to have originated with William Penn in the 1690s. Attempts to approve such a project in the New Jersey legislature had taken place three times early in the 19th century but it wasn’t until the fourth attempt that the Delaware and Raritan Canal charter of 1830 was finally passed due in large part to the dogged determination, lobbying expertise and lavish entertaining efforts of James Neilson – a staunch believer in the potential financial benefit such a canal would pose.
Canal? Railroad? Both.
At the same time that Neilson was lobbying for passage of the Delaware and Raritan Canal Charter, others were working towards securing the same permission to begin construction on the first railroad line across the center of the state including business interests in New York. The canal verses railroad battle had been in play since 1815 with the passing of John Stevens railroad charter. By the mid-1820s it hit a crescendo. This innovation generated much excitement and many in the business community saw its economic potentials. While still untested and untried, the railroad had many supporters and eager investors.
As James Neilson lobbied for the canal, backers of the Camden and Amboy Railroad and Transportation Company fought equally hard in Trenton for permission to begin work on this promising new internal improvement. Their goal was to connect the same key traffic hub between New York City and Philadelphia – the very transportation corridor planned for the water route. The rivalry was fierce, and both sides fought hard to persuade the legislature to support their venture over the other. It was a fight to win the upper hand for the potential transportation dollars to be made. In the end a compromise was reached – to pool the stock of both companies and create a railroad–canal partnership.
In early February of 1831 the Delaware and Raritan Canal Company and the Camden and Amboy Railroad and Transportation Company, also known as “The Joint Companies,” was formed. It was to be a 30-year merger/partnership that provided protection against competition for both the canal and the railroad. In that time the railroad would come to focus on passenger service and the canal on the movement of goods and freight. It was a marriage where each partner understood their/its role; a partnership that served the joint stockholders well. With the investment monies for both undertakings now thrown into one pot, and competition between them removed, construction on both began in earnest.
Building the D&R
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 22-mile feeder canal would be dug from Bull's Island on the Delaware River south to Trenton where it would meet and “feed” river water into the D&R’s main stem. Although the feeder’s primary purpose was to supply water to the main canal, it was navigated by mule-drawn canal boats from the time of its completion. By the 1840s changes were made to the feeder. An outlet lock into the Delaware River was constructed that allowed vessels from Pennsylvania's Delaware Division Canal access to the D&R’s feeder canal at Lambertville. This “short-cut” was primarily used by canal boats carrying Pennsylvania coal directly to markets across central New Jersey to New York City.
The chief engineer hired to oversee the D&R’s construction was a veteran from the Erie Canal project – Canvass White who worked under the Erie’s chief engineer Benjamin Wright. Born in Whitestown, NY in 1790, Canvass was a native of Oneida County and in his mid-twenties when the first shovels hit dirt on the Erie project. Little was known of canal engineering in America at the time and as a student of science, mathematics and surveying, White was sent to England in 1817 by New York Governor Dewitt Clinton to study the construction, building materials, tools and approaches used in the country’s extensive canal system. It proved to be an invaluable trip; a research mission covering over 2000 miles of canal property that included surveys of bridges, culverts, aqueducts, locks and other features. He returned to the Erie project armed with much needed knowledge and skills. An accomplished engineer, surveyor and meticulous, detail-oriented project manager, his work was in demand in the early days of internal improvements and industrialization. The officers of the Delaware and Raritan Canal Company were indeed lucky to have him not only do the surveying work for the waterway but to hire him as its chief engineer. By 1830 White got to work overseeing construction contracts, hiring section foremen and planning the schedule of work to be done over the course of the next few years.
The construction years, between 1831 into 1834, opened a variety of labor opportunities in the towns where the canal was to be built. Many skilled men of property became section contractors and builders while scores of unskilled local men and farmers took on labor jobs that included the arduous tasks of digging the ditch, moving earth and removing trees. These local workers were supplemented in large numbers by a moving migratory labor force filled mostly by men from Ireland. Many of these laborers, though not all, were specifically recruited by Canvass White and others to make the crossing to the United States when the Erie Canal project was begun. When finished in 1825, those Irish born workers moved on to other canal construction projects getting underway elsewhere from New England southward. Still others continued to immigrate to the United States after the completion of the Erie Canal as word spread that work was to be had here. Many were drawn to New Jersey’s D&R project by the slightly higher wage offered – $1 a day and 25 cents for each tree stump pulled and removed!
Work progressed steadily and although various projects remained to be completed, the Delaware and Raritan Canal officially opened to great fanfare on June 25, 1834. Dignitaries, including Governor Peter Vroom and others, traveled the entire length of the main canal from Bordentown to New Brunswick on boats borrowed from the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. Residents along the route came out to cheer as the boats made the 44-mile trip. Upon arrival in New Brunswick a grand celebration commenced with a 24-gun salute and a parade. The festivities ended with an elaborate dinner. The D&R Canal was opened for business. Goods could now be transported between Philadelphia and New York City in a mere two days! This was transportation progress.
Coal, Swing Bridges & Vessels of All Kinds
For nearly a century after it opened, the D&R Canal was one of America's busiest navigation canals even occasionally eclipsing the tonnage and profits of the Erie Canal. 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 Pennsylvania coal.
While it wasn’t New Jersey’s only transportation canal, the D&R had the advantage of being constructed over relatively level topography across the narrowest, central part of the state; its highest point was 57 feet above sea level at Trenton. It only required 14 lift locks to overcome the elevation changes from Bordentown to New Brunswick. By the 1850s its depth was increased to 8 feet to accommodate the needs of larger vessel with heavier loads.
Additionally, all of D&R’s bridges were movable allowing a large variety of boat traffic to ply the canal including the steam powered vessels that first made use of the navigation waterway in 1843. Other canals, such as Pennsylvania’s Delaware Division Canal, had height restrictions due to their stationary bridge crossings. By contrast, the D&R’s A-framed swing bridges opened boat traffic to an assortment of vessels from the mainstay mule-drawn boats to larger steam powered tugs, tall-masted ships and pleasure craft of all kinds. The towering A-Framed beams that supported the long wooden bridge decks could be seen from a distance while plying the waterway; they made quite the majestic impression and gave the D&R Canal a distinctive look in the 19th century. With turn of the 20th century and the introduction of motorized vehicles, the A-frame bridges, designed to accommodate horse, carriage and wagon traffic, were replaced by shorter king post swing bridges..
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 inevitably overtook the slower pace 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 giving it a 98-year run. After the canal closed that year it sat unused several years. Ownership was turned over to the State of New Jersey in 1936. After long debate, it was decided to rehabilitate the old canal system to serve as a water supply - a purpose it still serves today.
The conversion of the D&R from a transportation route to a water supply for the State of New Jersey saved it from an untimely demise. In the years before it became an official park – the mid-1930s to the early 1970s – locals who lived along its banks used it for recreation while the State maintained it as a water supply. In this 40-year period the D&R slowly made the transformation from working canal to linear park. The towpath, no longer cut and maintained, soon became overgrown with trees, wild flowers, bushes and grass. Today, tree growth has replaced carefully manicured space in most areas along this former transportation corridor creating a canopy of shade in many sections.
Due to a strong, local grassroots effort to preserve the waterway from encroachment, pollution and development, the canal and its remaining structures were entered on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. A year later, in 1974, over 60 miles of the canal and a narrow strip of land on both banks were made an official 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 and is a part of the East Coast Greenway. Today it is used by millions as a much loved and needed recreation corridor in Central New Jersey
Explore Our Trails
The historic towpath along the main canal from Bakers Basin Road (Trenton) to New Brunswick has a natural surface for hiking, jogging, horseback riding, and biking. From Mulberry Street to Bakers Basin Road, the trail is crushed stone. Horse trailers may be parked in some of the parking areas located along the main canal. The trail along the feeder canal is made of fine textured crushed stone and is for hiking, jogging and biking. No horses are permitted on the feeder canal trail. Motorized vehicles or ATV's are not permitted on trails in the park.
Use the buttons below to view maps of our trails.
Click on the "i" icon in the lower right corner of each map for more information.
The 70-mile Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park is one of central New Jersey's most popular recreational corridors for canoeing, jogging, hiking, bicycling, fishing and horseback riding. The canal and the park are part of the National Recreation Trail System. This linear park is also a valuable wildlife corridor connecting fields and forests. A recent bird survey conducted in the park revealed 160 species of birds, almost 90 of which nested in the park. The trail is located on lands owned by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, administered by the New Jersey State Park Service, and maintained by the Delaware Township Environmental Commission with help from volunteers. Visitors are welcome from dawn to dusk. Northern Community Park is located on Groveville Road between Route 206 and Route 130 in Bordentown Township. The trail starts from a recreation area of baseball diamonds, tennis courts, playground and restrooms near the parking lot. This short trail highlights towering tulip poplars, beech and oak trees leading to a wetland area filled with lycopodium and ferns. This access point is accessible from Route 206 South in Bordentown Township, south of the I-195 interchange. From Route 206 South, turn right onto Stanton Avenue, which is the first right past Pointe Breeze Apartments. Please do not park in front of either gate. The trail runs along the top of a bluff, which overlooks the Abbott Marshlands and Crosswicks Creek. The oak woods on the top of the bluff are dominated by White, Chestnut, and Black Oaks with numerous Tulip Poplars and Black Gums. On the bluff itself, and as undergrowth in the older part of the woods, are dense thickets of Mountain Laurel and Great Rhododendron. The Bordentown Bluffs were part of the “Point Breeze” estate of Joseph Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon, from 1817 to 1834 when Joseph returned to Europe. Horseshoe Bend Park offers sweeping vistas of the Delaware River Valley, rolling hills, forested ravines and pristine streams, and offers habitat to many wildlife species. The 552-acre park, jointly owned, managed and maintained by Kingwood Township and the NJ DEP Division of Parks and Forestry, offers a venue for horseback riders, hikers, mountain bikers, bird watchers, and others who favor the peace and tranquility of nature. It includes a 10,000-square-foot event center, leash free dog area, and ten miles of trails. The southern most section of the D&R Canal towpath traverses 3.7 miles from Lamberton Road to Bordentown at Crosswicks Creek with connections to the Route 295 Scenic Overlook.
Bulls Island Recreation Area facilities include a park office with year-round restroom facilities, picnic area, boat launches into Delaware River and the D&R Canal and access to the Park’s linear multi-use trail along the river and Route 29. A pedestrian bridge over the river provides a connection to the Delaware Canal State Park in Pennsylvania and river loop trail. In addition to these amenities visitors can explore the Bulls Island Natural Area by hiking a mile-long trail leading through a lowland floodplain forest where ostrich ferns, sycamores and stately tulip poplars can be seen.
A section of the D&R Canal State Park passes through the City of Trenton, our State’s capital. This hand-drawn map highlights a detail of the city streets and historic canal houses that are located here. Park visitors have the option of following the historic canal path as it winds through the city or utilizing the D&R Greenway, the former railbed of the Belvidere-Delaware Railroad.
The Kuglar Woods area is located within the Delaware River Bluffs in Kingwood Township, Hunterdon County. At the present time there is ¼ mile trail leading to a beautiful three-season waterfall for the public to explore. To access the trail visitors can park on the southbound side of Route 29 near the highway marker 28 in Kingwood Township, Hunterdon County. The trail is located immediately south of the parking lot, visitors must cross Route 29 to access the trailhead. Please use extreme caution while crossing the roadway.
View/print/download high resolution map here.
Hunting is allowed at this park during hunting season with a permit for population control Monday through Saturday; hunting is not permitted on Sundays. Hunting season typically lasts from September to February. Visitors should wear bright reflective vests for safety during hunting season.
As you cross over the canal on the “king post” style wood pedestrian bridge, please take note of the remnants of the historic wooden lock. Here, at Lock 1, was the entrance to the D&R Canal for all boat traffic heading from Philadelphia via the Delaware River north to the outlet locks at New Brunswick on the Raritan River and further on to New York City (or exit for those heading from New York towards Philadelphia).
The 70-mile Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park is one of central New Jersey's most popular recreational corridors for canoeing, jogging, hiking, bicycling, fishing and horseback riding. The canal and the park are part of the National Recreation Trail System. This linear park is also a valuable wildlife corridor connecting fields and forests. A recent bird survey conducted in the park revealed 160 species of birds, almost 90 of which nested in the park.
The trail is located on lands owned by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, administered by the New Jersey State Park Service, and maintained by the Delaware Township Environmental Commission with help from volunteers. Visitors are welcome from dawn to dusk.
Northern Community Park is located on Groveville Road between Route 206 and Route 130 in Bordentown Township. The trail starts from a recreation area of baseball diamonds, tennis courts, playground and restrooms near the parking lot. This short trail highlights towering tulip poplars, beech and oak trees leading to a wetland area filled with lycopodium and ferns.
This access point is accessible from Route 206 South in Bordentown Township, south of the I-195 interchange. From Route 206 South, turn right onto Stanton Avenue, which is the first right past Pointe Breeze Apartments. Please do not park in front of either gate. The trail runs along the top of a bluff, which overlooks the Abbott Marshlands and Crosswicks Creek. The oak woods on the top of the bluff are dominated by White, Chestnut, and Black Oaks with numerous Tulip Poplars and Black Gums. On the bluff itself, and as undergrowth in the older part of the woods, are dense thickets of Mountain Laurel and Great Rhododendron. The Bordentown Bluffs were part of the “Point Breeze” estate of Joseph Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon, from 1817 to 1834 when Joseph returned to Europe.
Horseshoe Bend Park offers sweeping vistas of the Delaware River Valley, rolling hills, forested ravines and pristine streams, and offers habitat to many wildlife species. The 552-acre park, jointly owned, managed and maintained by Kingwood Township and the NJ DEP Division of Parks and Forestry, offers a venue for horseback riders, hikers, mountain bikers, bird watchers, and others who favor the peace and tranquility of nature. It includes a 10,000-square-foot event center, leash free dog area, and ten miles of trails.
The southern most section of the D&R Canal towpath traverses 3.7 miles from Lamberton Road to Bordentown at Crosswicks Creek with connections to the Route 295 Scenic Overlook.