I love combining my bike rides with a bit of history.
So to coincide with a couple of one-day road closures of busy Canal Road in Franklin Township, I’ve organized some family-friendly bike rides for the East Coast Greenway. On the first one, a couple of weeks ago, a half-dozen of us braved the rain to pepper Bob (from the non-profit D&R Canal Watch) with questions about the canal, once one of the busiest navigational canals in the country.
You know the song about the Erie Canal? That one is far, far longer than the D&R, but the D&R is wider (75 feet across) and deeper (8 feet vs 4 feet), so it could handle more kinds of boats. And that line in the song about “low bridge, everybody down”? Not a problem on the D&R because there are no bridges to go under. So not only could it handle barges but also steam-powered boats.
Bottom line is it’s tougher and stronger than the Erie Canal, even if it is shorter. Call it Jersey tough.
How did this canal get built? Mostly by Irishmen, digging with shovels, no fancy equipment. Companies had 10-mile stretches to dig and they recruited workers by the thousands. Mostly immigrants, no surprise there. Recruited to come to America, no less. It took from 1830 to 1834 to do the work; the Erie Canal had opened about a decade earlier.
And what was it used to transport? Coal. Lots of coal. Taking the canal from the Raritan River in New Brunswick to the Delaware River in Bordentown and then the Delaware down to Philadelphia was faster, safer and cheaper than sailing from New York to Philly via Cape May. And the company that owned the canal made lots of money until 1892, the last profitable year, and the canal was still used for transportation into 1932.
Its encore life before becoming a state park (and the longest off-road section of the East Coast Greenway in New Jersey)? A water supply system.
And the next bike ride with history? Coming up July 8: Following in the footsteps of George Washington … and his spy back in 1777, when no one was dreaming of the canal.