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Morris Canal

he Morris Canal in Jersey City
--This is an introduction to a guidebook, to be published soon, including a walking tour guide.

JERSEY CITY by Ronald L. Rice

The opening of the Morris Canal through Jersey City in 1836 presaged an industrial and commercial boom that was to hoist Jersey City into national prominence as a manufacturing and transportation center. Today few traces of the canal exist in Jersey City. The experience of the canal is no longer that of walking along abandoned towpaths; yet the experience is real and meaningful, albeit subtle. This pamphlet may assist anyone interested in Jersey City to trace the canal throughout its 8-mile circuitous path through the city. 

This guide is about the Morris Canal in Jersey City. It is intended for Jersey City buffs who have a general interest in the canal and for canal buffs who, to date, may have been intimidated by the urban character of Jersey City. The 15-mile tour (almost double the actual canal route) can be driven in less than one hour, but four hours or more are required to truly savor the experience. A shortened version can safely be covered on foot by a good hiker in the same four hours, provided you have a car waiting at the other end. 

The original canal was constructed from 1825 to 1831, a few years earlier than the Jersey City extension. The initial construction brought canal boats from Phillipsburg to Newark, using the fresh waters of Lake Hopatcong to feed the locks and power the inclined planes. By contrast, the 12-mile extension through Jersey City, Kearny and the eastern section of Newark ran at sea level and was filled with salt water. The section through Jersey City was equipped with tide locks at both ends. These admitted water at high tide and prevented it from flowing out at low tide. 

The tidewater extension was constructed in sandy soils that were less stable and required greater maintenance. Its water source proved inadequate and was later supplemented by tides, and still later by steam and electric pumps that added more water from the Hackensack River. 

The remains of Lock 21 East and its pumping station can be found on the banks of the Hackensack River just south of Communipaw Avenue (Route 1-9); the remains of Lock 22 East on the Hudson River have been completely covered by Dudley Street just north of the Portside apartment complex. The canal that ran between the locks saw its last mule-drawn boat around 1912 per some accounts, and was closed and drained in 1924. Much earlier it had been defeated by competition from the railroads. Now the railroads are suffering with competition from highways and airplanes. 

As constructed, the canal ran close to or along the shores of the Hudson River (really Upper New York Bay) from Turnpike Interchange 14B to the Bayonne border and the shores of Newark Bay from the Bayonne border to Communipaw Avenue. The marshes on both sides of Jersey City have been filled in and the canal site today is nowhere near the present shores except at its two termini. Furthermore, Bayonne did not even exist as a municipality when the canal was constructed. Bayonne's border was later determined by the location of the canal and was sited adjacent to but immediately south of the canal. In addition, the lands south of a line from Interchange 14B on the east to Culver Avenue. on the west, representing most of the canal route through today's Jersey City, were actually constructed through the former Bergen Township. The Township of Greenville later separated from Bergen and, in 1873, was joined to Jersey City, long after the canal was constructed. 

The canal's eastern terminal was located on the shores of the Hudson River at the northwest corner of the Morris Canal Little Basin near the intersection of Washington and Dudley streets (mile 0.0). From this point it proceeded west 1.6 miles - parallel to and a short distance south of Grand Street. It then turned to the southwest running parallel to and south of Garfield Avenue., made a 120 degree turn to the north in the vicinity of Interchange 14A of the NJ Turnpike, ran along the Bayonne/Jersey City border and the edge of Country Village, and continued along the east side of NJ 440 until just before Communipaw Avenue, where it turned west and crossed the Hackensack River. 

The strange V-shaped configuration of the canal was mandated by the hills of the southern extension of the Palisade Ridge ( Bergen Hill) and the limited construction methods available when the canal was designed. It seems that there was a Canal policy that once elevation was obtained, one should never go back down in elevation. The Canal came down in steps from Lake Hopatcong to Jersey City and never went back up. The engineering timidity here is in stark contrast to the construction boldness to the west where the canal climbed over 900 feet. However, inspection of topographic maps reveals that virtually all of the Jersey City section of the canal was constructed through lands with an elevation of 10 feet or less above sea level. The deepest cut was through the 20-foot hills next to Currie's Woods. The Palisade Ridge elevation is 50 feet or more across virtually all of Jersey City to the north of the canal and a considerable portion of Bayonne to the south. 

The hard rock under the Palisade Ridge through Jersey City can be observed by driving on the covered roadway just west of the Holland Tunnel. The cut reveals that the rock extends virtually to the surface.

The cliffs of the ridge can be easily observed as far south as Bayview Avenue. near Interchange 14B of the Turnpike. 

The canal builders took advantage of the natural gap in the ridge running between today's Bayonne and Jersey City. This gap later became the target of the railroad line that ran across Newark Bay. After the canal was closed, local merchants envisioned a ship canal through the gap, connecting Newark and New York Bays. These hopes were thwarted some forty years later when the State of New Jersey ran the Newark Bay Extension of the New Jersey Turnpike directly through the gap. Indeed, most people today are unaware that the gap even exits.

A large, detailed map of the area can be ordered. Please note, the map is in GIF format and is 119K in size. This map link does not work as well as I'd like yet. Please send me a note if you know a better way to display large detailed maps on the web. Special thanks to Gary Kleinedler and members of the CSNJ Map and Guide Committee. 

additional information about the Morris Canal

Today

While most of the canalís preserved remnants are found in rural or suburban areas of western New Jersey, the easternmost portion is squarely in an urban setting. In Jersey City, the Morris Canal 'Big Basin' which spills into New York Harbor is currently used as a marina, as well as a landing for NY Waterway ferry and Liberty Landing Water Taxi service. The views of the harbor from this point are spectacular and several major tourist sites are nearby, including the Liberty Science Center, Ellis Island and Liberty State Park. However, public access to this areas which was originally where barges were stored either before or after their journey along the Morris Canal is currently limited to portions of the south bank where a paved path approaches the marina. Furthermore, the western end of this portion of the canal is polluted with diesel fuel and oil leaking from a boat fueling station, and with refuse from the scrap metal yard on the north bank.

While advocacy for the Morris Canal continues to grow, there is no shortage of pressures threatening its revitalization, particularly since major portions of property alongside the canal are in private hands. The Jersey City portion which due both to it proximity to major tourist destinations and to the vistas of the New York Harbor is a resource of ideally suited to an area of increased public access. At this point it is unclear how this portion of the canal will be developed, but in the absence of a strong community coalition, this important resource risks rapid and poorly planned development.
Posted 8 May 2003, article by Virginia Terry.

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