Morris Canal

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Morris Canal
Mellotron Interview


Mellotrons, MONEYPIT, and the Morris Canal Jerry Korb's interests include the Morris Canal, a canal that ran 102 miles from the Delaware River at the border of Pennsylvania across New Jersey to the mouth of the Hudson River, across from Manhattan.  MONEYPIT Mid-Atlantic took a side trip to visit many interesting sites along what little remains of the Morris Canal.

What does this have to do with Mellotrons?  Simply, it's the preservation of the past, curiosity about how things were done before, and the firm knowledge that we cannot move ahead into the future without understanding where we've been.

As with the Mellotron, the Morris Canal was an amazing invention for its time.  The Morris Canal was built through hilly terrain, and anyone who has ever seen water knows that it runs downhill.  So how did they create a canal, which must be fairly straight and level, and make it go through hills?

Contact any engineer today and tell him that you want to build a canal 102 miles long, 5 feet deep, 40 feet wide---and that you want it to start at sea level, go up over 900 feet as you wind through the hills, and then down nearly 800 feet to its outlet.  The engineer would raise an eyebrow or two and look puzzled.  Now tell him that it would have to be built without bulldozers, steam shovels, or any other large powered mechanical apparatus--just men, shovels, sweat, and whiskey.  And, by the way, there'd be no electricity for raising or lowering the canal barges along the way.  The engineer would then tell you that you're smoking crack and bid you good day.

But the engineers in the early 1800s didn't back away from such a challenge.  Instead they devised a clever system to build and run such a canal, a canal that hauled millions of tons of coal and iron ore across an entire state for 100 years.


The Morris Canal had the most elevation change of any canal in the world---1674 feet!  So what technology did the canal designers adopt to get canal barges from one elevation to another?  The Morris Canal used a series of locks and inclined planes to affect the change in elevation.

Locks were common technology at the time and well understood.  All you need are two gates.  Let the boat in one gate, close the gate behind the boat, and open the other gate.  The water will rise or fall, bringing the boat to the level of the next leg of its journey.  The Morris Canal was littered with locks, and so were many other canals.  Locks are still the primary method used today for changing elevation in a canal.  No big deal.

But locks of the back woods in the 1800s were limited in the elevation change they could achieve.  These were stone sluiceways about 90 feet long and 11 feet wide controlled by wooden gates that were opened and closed by hand.  You could get ten or twelve feet out of that perhaps.  With a total elevation change of nearly 1700' and the need to climb the abrupt hillside, a new technology was needed.  So the Morris Canal added a twist with its inclined planes.  Inclined planes were first used in Europe on a small scale basis, but those designs weren't meant for the massive portage of coal and iron as in the Morris Canal.  The designers of the Morris Canal had to beef up the inclined plane designs for the Canal to succeed.

Inclined planes start with a cradle, which is similar to a railroad car in the way it moves along the inclined plane.  The cradle is sent to the end of the inclined plane and submerged.  The canal barge is then floated onto the cradle.  The cradle with the barge atop is dragged along the inclined plane to the next section of the canal, and the barge is offloaded from the cradle for the next leg of its journey.

Simple enough.  But now you're going to be hauling 70 tons of coal in a canal barge up a hill that has as much as 100 feet of elevation change and is as much as 1600 feet long!  Don't ask the mules to do it.  No, you don't have a powerful gas engine, nor do you have electricity.

But you have water.  Man has been using water for millennia to turn waterwheels to generate some kind of mechanical power.  What if you put a huge loop of cable on your inclined plane using a few pulleys and wrapped the cable around a waterwheel to get some power to it?  Attach the cradle to the cable, and you're in business!

Ummm...Not really.  Unfortunately waterwheels don't have enough power.  They're great for grinding corn or running a few cotton gins, but beyond that there's not enough torque to raise 70 tons of ore.  Sure, they tried waterwheels on the Morris Canal, but the boat capacity was limited, and by 1850 this was becoming unacceptable.  More cargo meant more power, and the engineers had to come up with a solution.

Morris Canal Turbine on display at Lake Hopatcong
Jerry Korb near the intake pipe of one of the turbines, which is on display at Lake Hopatcong, the summit point of the Canal

So you invent a new kind of engine.  Take your lawn sprinkler, the type that spins around.  Why does it spin?  The water is forced through the hose to small openings on the sprinkler's arms, acting like jets and making the arms turn.  What if you had a six foot by six foot sluiceway of water dropping down 50 feet into a huge pipe and then being fed to a very large lawn sprinkler?  Not only would you water the lawn in about half a second, you'd also generate an amazing amount of power as the big sprinkler rotates.  Send a shaft from this sprinkler--called a "turbine"--up to a drum, wrap your cable around the drum, and you're haulin' that cradle up and down the hill with the barge, the ore, and a few people along for the ride!

Let's add a few more pieces to the puzzle to what these inclined planes are.

Sleeper Stones on the Morris Canal Inclined planes are cleared areas between two sections of the canal.  Along the length of the inclined planes you'll find sleeper stones (seen to the left).  On these sleeper stones you'd have wooden beams and then railroad tracks on which the cradle rides.  You would also see pulleys along the length to guide the big cable (see the picture below).  And at each end of the inclined plane underwater would be a huge wheel around which the cable turns, creating a big loop---top of the plane, down to the drum at the powerhouse, to the bottom of the plane, around the wheel underwater, up the hill along pulleys to the cradle, up the hill to the wheel at the top and 'round again.  (Think of it as the Mellotron Mark II shuttling system times 1000!  :-) )

The cable itself?  It's some of the earliest work by John Roebling, the man who invented spun wire rope and built the Brooklyn Bridge using them.  The cable is so tough that a great deal of it is still around today and would still be usable.

Also in the picture are some of the bearings for the shaft coming out of the turbine.  Below is what is left of the top cap of a turbine.  It is a large iron plate that sat atop the hollow turbine to make sure the water that was fed from the bottom was forced out the turbine's water jets.

Cap of a turbine on the Morris Canal

To power the turbines, water was taken from the higher section of the canal and fed through a long wooden box to the powerhouse.  The water dropped down 50 feet into the turbine's intake pipe and out through the turbine creating the power.  The water was then sent out along the tail race where it rejoined the lower section of the canal.  The picture to the right is of the tail race.

How long would it take to get many tons of ore on a boat up a hill?  Think about it.  You're using water to pull a cradle with this heavy 70 ton barge on it along a 1600 foot track uphill 100 feet in elevation.  How long do you think it'd take, on average, using a reasonably safe speed?  Make a guess by clicking below:

2 minutes 4 minutes 12 minutes 20 minutes
30 minutes 1 hour 2 hours 3 hours

Engineers recently studied the amount of horsepower in the system and made an estimate of how fast it could have taken with everything at its fastest speed.  How long do you think it would take at its fastest?  Make a guess by clicking below:

2 minutes 4 minutes 12 minutes 20 minutes
30 minutes 1 hour 2 hours 3 hours

I was surprised, too.



Elblag Canal Inclined Plane
Dual-tracked inclined plane on the Elblag Canal, Poland

Google search for the Elblag (or Elblaski) Canal in Poland, and you'll find the modern equivalent of the Morris Canal, complete with 5 inclined planes!  Members of the Canal Society of New Jersey who visited the canal were startled to learn that the canal's builders visited New Jersey in 1885 and copied the Morris Canal's technology almost piece for piece!  There are some differences, as the Elblag builders opted for waterwheels to turn the huge cable drums and the sheave wheel is vertical rather than horizontal and underwater, but by and large this is the Morris Canal's technology.

Elblag Canal Inclined Plane

Elblag Canal photographs used with permission from the Canal Society of New Jersey.  Thank you!



For those unfamiliar with the basic workings of a canal similar to the Morris Canal, just think of your local street only filled with water.  Instead of a sidewalk you'd have a towpath where a team of mules would walk along pulling a cable tied to the canal boat.  No, the canal boats didn't have any engines, just the mules pulling them along.

Saxton Falls Dam and Morris Canal Lock 5 West When the canal boats would reach a lock, the mules would stop to feed or rest.  Boats would be secured in the lock to "snubbing posts" until the water reached the right level, and the mules would be pressed back into service to get the boat going again.  However when the boat had to go over an inclined plane, the mules would be unhitched, and there were special paths set aside for them to get around the workings of the inclined plane.  At the end they'd be hitched back up to the boat, and off they'd go.

To the left is the Saxton Falls Dam and Morris Canal Lock 5 West.  This lock was a "guard lock" in that there was no elevation change.  At Saxton Falls the Canal joined a river, and Lock 5 West was used to allow the Morris Canal to break away from the river and go off in its own southwesterly direction.

Another interesting type of structure was the aqueduct.  The canal had its own elevation in relation to other rivers and streams in the area, and often a bridge had to be built, just as with roadways, to maintain this elevation.  Yes, a bridge made to carry water!  No, this idea isn't exactly new, as the Romans built them to bring water to populated areas.  But in this case they were used more like the bridges with which we're familiar on our roadways.  Some of the Morris Canal's aqueducts were built of wood.

To the right is a picture of the aqueduct in Washington Township, New Jersey, at the foot of Plane 7 West.  Today instead of carrying water and boats this aqueduct is part of a road carrying asphalt, cars, and trucks.

Morris Canal aqueduct, Washington Township, New Jersey

What type of manpower was required on the Canal?  You'd have someone, the captain, often nicknamed the "tiller shark", at the rudder of the canal boat, and you'd have someone onshore driving the mules.  The lock tender would handle opening and closing the gates on the locks.  At the inclined planes you'd have several people helping out, including a brakeman who rode in a little house on the cradle.  The brakeman was there just in case the cable let loose and to assist a heavily loaded downhill boats.  (According to one account, eventually the people who ran the canal figured out that the brakeman rarely if ever had to do anything, so eventually they were all sacked, and the tiller shark would take over as brakeman.  Talk about saving a nickel!  This, however, has not been proven according to records.)  Meanwhile the plane tender operated the control valve to the turbine and kept vigil atop the plane house cupola or upper floor to make sure things were running smoothly.  You also had the poor buggers working the tar barrels.  Barrels of tar were kept warm next to the inclined plane, and the tar was slobbered onto the cable to keep it greased.  Fun job...not really.

Canal Store, Port Murray, New Jersey Along the way you'd go through various towns, and there'd often be a general store along the bank of the Canal where goods could be loaded and unloaded right from the boat.

The picture on the left is the canal store in Port Murray, built in 1836.  It is now a private residence.  The canal used to go along the right side of the building.

Port Murray and several other towns across New Jersey still start with "Port", though they're miles away from any apparent body of water.  But if you look close enough, you may see remains of the old canal somewhere in town.

Those are your basics.  What set the Morris Canal apart was the geographical challenges that it overcame and how it did so.  In fact, the designs for the Morris Canal were copied and used elsewhere.  There are some canals in Europe and Japan that are still operating using the same basic mechanisms, although electric motors have replaced the water turbines.


Morris Canal Historian (and Mellotron Professor) Jerry Korb took me on a day long Morris Canal sightseeing trip.  We started near his mother's home in Wood Ridge, New Jersey, headed west with various stops eventually to meet up with the Lees at Plane 9 West for a lecture, made it over to the border of Pennsylvania, then east again for more stops.

bulletWestern Terminus, Phillipsburg

This was the start of the Morris Canal, marked by a large archway (slightly left of center in the middle photo above, under the trees) leading from the Delaware River.

Immediately inside the arch began incline Plane 11 West, lifting the canal barge 35 feet up from the riverbed...

Remains of Plane 11 West, Morris Canal, New Jersey

...where pretty much all that remains of Plane 11 West are a few stones.  The rest has been demolished to make way for rail lines and a parking lot.

Your Webmaster on the entry archway


Green's Bridge, Phillipsburg

Green's Bridge, Phillipsburg, New Jersey The Morris Canal once flowed under this train bridge in Phillipsburg, New Jersey.  The bridge was built around 1860.


Plane 9 West, Port Warren

Plane 9 West is the longest inclined plane on the Morris Canal (about 1600 feet) with the highest change in elevation (100 feet).  The property was purchased by James Lee, Sr., one of the foremost authorities on the Morris Canal.  Unfortunately at this time James Lee, Sr. is in a nursing home with Alzheimer's and is no longer active in Morris Canal documentation or preservation.  His son and grandson, however, have taken over where James left off, and they continue to preserve Plane 9 West and give lectures about it and the Morris Canal.

Sleeper Stones, Plane 9 West, Morris Canal

The Plane 9 West site is amazing.  In addition to having one of the original buildings still on site, there are many sleeper stones along the long inclined plane.  Near the top is the cable that once towed the canal barges.  The Lees have an impressive collection of Morris Canal artifacts as well.

What sets Plane 9 West apart from most other sites is the turbine, still in place in the ground.  When James Lee, Sr. purchased the property, he realized that the pit where the turbine was located was filled in with rubble from the days when the canal was demolished and that there was a good chance that the turbine was still there.  James, his family, and friends spent decades on and off digging out the immense hole in the ground.  What they found shocked them.  Yes, the turbine was there (although damaged and tipped on its side), and the chamber was completely intact, including the tail race.

You can climb through the tail race tunnel Tail race, Plane 9 West, Morris Canal into the chamber James Lee, Jr. in the turbine room, Morris Canal, Plane 9 West to see the turbine.  James Lee, Jr. and his son, an archaeologist, would be glad to show you around.  They also give lectures.

Jerry Korb lecturing at Plane 9 West on the Morris Canal Jerry helped with the lectures, too.

Another interesting bit about Plane 9 West was that it was a double-track.  Two cradles meant that two barges could move at the same time, one coming up, one heading down.  The other double-track planes along the Morris Canal were at Port Colden (Plane 6 West) and Newark (Plane 12 East).

James Lee, Jr. owns Plane 10 West which also includes a turbine exactly where it should be.  Recent evidence indicates another turbine may be in place at Plane 8 East in Montville, but this area is adjacent to developed property and Interstate 287, so further investigation may be difficult.



Take a step back in time and visit Waterloo Village, New Jersey.  A tourist attraction now, this was a quaint village in the mid 1800s.  It hasn't changed much in over 100 years.

Waterloo greeted the tiller sharks with a general store and tavern, located right at the canal's edge.    The canal hit Lock 3 West at Waterloo Morris Canal Lock 3 West, Waterloo, took an immediate turn right at a dam, and found itself at Plane 4 West. Morris Canal Plane 4 West, Waterloo  The boatmen used a conch shell as a horn to announce their arrival at a lock and inclined plane to minimize the waiting times at those locations.



  We encountered some people fishing in the canal and a nearby stream at Starport.



Morris Canal Lock Tender's House, Lock 2 West, Stanhope

The remains of the old lock tender's house is all that's left of Lock 2 West in Stanhope.  The remaining structures were bulldozed for an exit for the Interstate, although the canal was dammed at the top of the original lock, thus preserving a section.  If you can find it, there's a pleasant canal walk for you.

Morris Canal Section, Stanhope

This was a very popular spot way back in its heyday.  The lock tender, a Mr. William Fluke, had seven daughters, you see...



Morris Canal, Plane 2 East, Ledgewood

You will find Plane 2 East in Ledgewood, New Jersey, and it is perhaps one of the best preserved sites in Morris County.  You will wander along the inclined plane and find pieces of Pennsylvania coal spilled overboard a century ago.  You'll also find globs of tar which they used to use to grease the cable.  At the bottom of Plane 2 East is a round basin wide enough for boats to wait or even turn around.  And a short way from that---now the road into the parking lot and the parking lot itself---was Plane 3 East, now completely gone.  The turbine from Plane 3 East is the one in Lake Hopatcong State Park, seen in the photo above.



Morris Canal, Wharton

Our final stop of the day (before an excellent "canal side" dinner at the Canal House Restaurant) was in Wharton.  This is a city park preserving a section of canal about 3/4 of a mile long. 

Morris Canal, Wharton Along the canal you can see some stone walls still holding up a rail line. Morris Canal, Wharton

Lock 2 East, Morris Canal, Wharton  It is a very nice walk, and at the end are the remains of Lock 2 East, now just flat stones on the ground, and the crumbling foundation of the lock tender's house.



Morris Canal Park, Clifton, NJ

Our first stop of the day, we had the great fortune of running into Jack Kuepfer, a very active member of the Canal Society of New Jersey.  He maintains a delightful neighborhood park in Clifton, New Jersey.  The park is a welcome respite from the heavily traveled roads in the area and brings visitors friendly ducks and geese, gazebos, places to sit in the shade of the trees, and a place to have a BBQ.  Mr. Kuepfer is a youthful 83 and was given an award personally in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan.

Morris Canal Park, Clifton, NJ

This location is very familiar to our fellow Mellotronist Ken Merbler whose folks used to live nearby.

Turbine, Morris Canal, Plane 9 West


bulletThe Morris Canal - A Photographic History by James Lee.  This is probably the definitive work about the Morris Canal.  See the Canal Society of New Jersey web site for more information.
bulletCanal Society of New Jersey.  A web site dedicated to the Morris Canal and other canals in New Jersey.  Includes very interesting "Then and Now" scenes, a photo documentary of nearly every lock and inclined plane along the way, audio files, links to other interesting web sites, and more.  Jerry Korb himself provided some of the "Then and Now" photos and checked canal data.
bulletNew Jersey State Archives:  Morris Canal Abandonment Photos.  A stunning series of pictures taken in the early 1900s shortly before the Canal was dismantled.


The Morris Canal began to fall into disuse in the early 1900s and was decommissioned in 1924 by the State of New Jersey.  Ironically, demolition plans were drawn up by the man who helped engineer improvements to sections of the Canal decades before.  Culverts were installed in various sections of the canal so the water could be drained away.  Powerhouses were burned to the ground.  The tons of iron were pillaged and removed to be melted down again and used for other things, particularly in the 1940s when there was need for it during World War II.  The locks were dismantled and filled in.  The turbines were either removed or buried in place.  Eventually large sections of the Canal were bulldozed and replaced with homes, local roads, and even the Interstate.  In the western part of the state the Canal can be seen and followed more easily, but in eastern New Jersey it's nearly all gone.

Some buildings, such as the house at Plane 9 West, are still lived in today, but many of the lock tender's houses are deteriorating foundations or cellar holes or are gone.  Most of what is left are some sleeper stones on the inclined planes, what you can see of the tops of the stones on some of the locks, and the occasional short piece of canal along which you can walk.  Gone are the tillers, the barges, and the cradles.  Mules no longer plod along the towpaths.  The turbines no longer turn.  The water doesn't flow anymore.  All those who lived and worked on the canal are gone, but their memories linger in photos and video, thanks to James Lee, Sr.

Building the canal was an enormous task done with shovels and sweat.  Working the canal was a hard, dirty, low paying job and was not well regarded, yet somehow we cannot help romanticize what it was like to be there tending a barge, driving the mules forward, working the locks, or cradling the next boat for its ride up the hill.  Perhaps as we move to the future in our fast-paced and hectic lives we're looking back with a longing for these times, which to us are perhaps more serene, simple, and down to earth, in contrast to how many of our lives are today.

Maybe in a few hundred years when they've long since replaced the freight railroads and Interstates with some unimaginable futuristic, faster, and more complex mode of transportation, those in our future will look back on us and the way we do things in the same light as we look at those who built and worked the Morris Canal.