The 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
information about the Morris Canal
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.
For more information, e-mail :
Ronald Rice, Map Archivist, Canal Society of New Jersey