Explore D&R Canal State Park during 50th celebration!

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by Alison Mitchell, Co-Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation

It’s hard to imagine a world in which the fastest way to move freight between Philadelphia and New York City was having mules tow barges along a 70-mile canal connecting the Delaware and Raritan rivers.

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But that world existed when the Delaware & Raritan Canal opened in 1834. It was a major improvement, providing a faster and safer alternative to sailing all the way down the Delaware, rounding the point of Cape May, and heading back north on the often-treacherous Atlantic Ocean. In its peak years, the canal was mostly used for transporting coal mined in Pennsylvania.

Alas, the canal’s days were numbered. By the late 1800s, railroad lines crossing New Jersey had largely made canal transportation obsolete.

Luckily for New Jerseyans, the D&R Canal didn’t meet the same fate as many others of its era. Instead of being filled in and paved over, most of the canal was preserved as an historic, recreational and water supply resource.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the creation of the D&R Canal State Park, an amazing place for hiking, bicycling, kayaking and canoeing, fishing, observing nature, and learning about a unique chapter of New Jersey history. The anniversary is being celebrated throughout the year with hikes, bike rides, paddles, history talks and more.

D&R Canal State Park takes a V-shaped route through four central New Jersey counties – Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex and Somerset – with the city of Trenton at its center.

The 44-mile main section of the canal connected the northernmost navigable point of the Delaware River, near Bordentown, with the westernmost navigable part of the Raritan River in New Brunswick.

This main section of the D&R trail is dotted with many historic structures, including the homes of former bridge and lock tenders. Along the route is the Rockingham State Historic Site, which served as a Revolutionary War headquarters for General George Washington; and the bridge tender’s house in Griggstown, which serves as visitor center for the Millstone Valley National Scenic Byway. One of the most scenic stretches runs along Lake Carnegie in Princeton. 

The other side of the V-shaped state park extends from Trenton in a northwesterly direction. This section of canal was a 22-mile “feeder” that began just north of Stockton and kept the main canal’s water levels high enough that barges didn’t get stuck. Much of today’s feeder canal trail is built on an abandoned rail corridor, the Belvidere-Delaware Line.

This trail section goes past the Prallsville Mills complex in Stockton, which dates back to the late 1700s, and Washington Crossing State Park, at the site where George Washington crossed the Delaware on Christmas night in 1776. Also along the route are the historic towns of Frenchtown, Lambertville, and Titusville; and the Bulls Island Recreation Area.

The D&R Canal State Park trail is not only New Jersey’s longest multi-use trail, it’s also an integral part of efforts to connect trails across state lines. It’s part of the 800-mile Circuit Trails network in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, as well as the 3,000-mile East Coast Greenway from Maine to Florida.

The park operates in conjunction with the D&R Canal Commission, also created in 1974. The commission is charged with protecting water quality, as well as the park’s natural and historic character. The canal provides water for over 1 million central New Jersey customers, and the fees they pay helps to maintain the canal and the trail.

This spring, celebrate the D&R Canal State Park’s 50th anniversary by getting out and exploring this New Jersey gem! To learn more about the park – including the locations of trail entrances and where to rent bicycles and kayaks – go to https://dandrcanal.org/. The website also has a wealth of historical information and photos.

If you’d like to attend an upcoming event, here are some in April and May:

Saturday, April 27 – “Trail Jam” in Trenton will be held from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., in conjunction with Celebrate Trails Day. It will be held at the D&R trail entrance at the Trenton Battle Monument, and will include a trail cleanup, cycling events and art making. For more information, go to https://allevents.in/trenton/trail-jam-2024/200026369617439.

Tuesday, April 30 – Author and historian Linda J. Barth will share the history of the canal, highlighting the people, bridges, locks, and aqueducts that made it work. The lecture will be held at 6:30 p.m. at the Updike Farmstead, 354 Quaker Road, Princeton. For more information, go to https://princetonhistory.org/events/lewis-b-cuyler-lecture-the-delaware-raritan-canal/.

Saturday, May 4 – 50th Anniversary Half-Mule Paddle Race will be sponsored by Canal Watch, starting at 10 a.m. In the days when the canal operated, a full mule day was 15 miles. This half-mule race will run for eight miles, starting at Turning Basin Park in Princeton. There will also be a one-mile fun race. For more information, go to https://paddleguru.com/races/DandRCanalPark50thAnniversaryRace.

Saturday, May 11 – An informative presentation will be held from 1-3 p.m. on the D&R Canal State Park’s most recent property acquisition, the Point Breeze estate in Bordentown. The former estate is located on the bluffs above Crosswicks Creek in Bordentown, and was home to Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon Bonaparte’s older brother. To register, go to https://www.eventbrite.com/e/a-monument-to-fallen-royalty-rediscovering-point-breeze-tickets-838898557167?aff=oddtdtcreator.

Throughout the anniversary year, New Jersey Conservation Foundation will be working with partners in Trenton to create a series of walking groups to encourage residents and workers to enjoy the D&R trails on a more frequent basis.

To learn more about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org

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