Whatever Floats Your Canal Boat

by Erin Feith, Research Assistant
December 12, 2023

In the mid-to-late 1860s, the Morris Canal was in its heyday. Recently expanded, it was more profitable than ever, and many hundreds of canal boats each transporting up to 70 tons of coal, iron ore, and other products traveled its route across the state from Phillipsburg on the Delaware River to Jersey City on New York Harbor. Traversing significant changes in elevation along the route, the boats had to navigate 23 locks and 23 inclined planes where the possibility of traffic jams and lost time were always looming. Then as now, time was money, and so detailed rules and regulations were developed to keep everything running like clockwork.

Lock 2 East of the Morris Canal and the reconstructed Lock Tender’s House in Wharton

The expediency key to the canal’s success and profitability began with those employed by the company. With the exception of Sunday, their offices were expected to be open every day from daylight until 10 o’clock at night, and a “conspicuous” light kept burning. To ensure smooth operation during those hours, plane and lock tenders enforced strict rules for boats traveling along the canal. Not exempt from penalties themselves, regulations published in 1868 set fines for employees that allowed boats to pass without proper clearance at $1 fee (about $22 today), a sum intended to encourage strict adherence to the rules.

The Morris Canal also relied upon the cooperation of boatmen who used the waterway to maintain peak capacity. 57 rules dictated the proper procedures they were to adhere to as they made their way along the 102-mile canal as it was of the utmost importance that the actions of one boat did not hinder the progress of another. With penalties ranging from $1 to upwards of $25, many of the regulations were aimed at preventing any act that may slow or stop transit. This included everything from which boats had the right-of way to a requirement for a horn to be blown ahead of their arrival at any given lock.

Modified conch shells like this one on loan for the Canal Society of NJ for our current exhibit could be used as horns to alert lock tenders of an arriving canal boat.

Guided by its rules and regulations, the Morris Canal saw the greatest tonnage of goods moved and achieved its highest net income in 1866. Thereafter, the canal slowly declined as faster and more versatile railroads transportation became available. The canal was finally abandoned in the 1920s after almost 100 years of service. However, in running a tight ship (or rather, canal boat) at maximum capacity, the Morris Canal functioned as an integral part of local 19th-century industry, with its impact on the landscape still visible today.

The conch shell horn is on display in our current exhibit, Morris County Through the Lens of Time: A Photographic Journey by Xiomáro, through January 7.