Michael Helbing and a hearty group of avid hikers were not daunted by snow or cold last week. Bundled in warm weather gear, they trekked on foot through the woods of northwest Morris County, making their way to Lake Hopatcong. The 17-mile hike in sub-freezing temperatures took them on a portion of the route of the former Morris Canal, a 102-mile engineering marvel that once was the heart of the economic engine of much of North Jersey. It’s a part of the state’s history that Helbing wants more people to know about and explore. So the 28-year-old Warren County man, who grew up in Port Colden, an old canal village, has embarked on a personal crusade to create a Morris Canal trail, one that will run the length of the former canal from Jersey City to Phillipsburg.
“There is an incredible history here, one that people should know about,” said Helbing, who has led long-distance hikes for the past dozen years, including recent once-a-month treks along some portion of the canal route. “I envision a heritage trail, kind of like Patriot’s Path that runs through Morris County. A walking and multi-use route, maybe even for biking and horses.” Helbing’s effort has caught the attention of the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, a federation of 104 hiking clubs and environmental organizations dedicated to building and maintaining marked hiking trails and protecting related open space. Brenda Holzinger, the organization’s New Jersey field representative, said they are committed to working with Helbing to try to make the trail a reality.
“It’s most exciting and very dear to our hearts,” said Holzinger. “But whether we can take the next step and cement all the needed connections to make this happen is a question.” Helbing’s quest is not the first attempt to create a connected canal trail. The Canal Society of New Jersey has long worked to save parts of the former canal and call attention to its history. Warren County also has a committee that successfully preserved portions of the route for a potential canal greenway. “Absolutely, creating a trail is something we’d like to do. But it’s no small initiative,” said Brian Morrell, president of the Canal Society.
The brainchild of George McCulloch, a Morristown businessman, the canal opened in 1832, an artificial waterway that eventually ran 102 miles from Phillipsburg to Jersey City. An alternative to the state’s rutted and muddy road system, flat-bottomed boats were pulled by mules along the canal to ship iron ore, coal and many other products. Unlike other canals built in relatively flat terrain, the Morris Canal literally climbed hills and mountains, rising a total of 1,674 feet and containing 23 lift locks and 23 inclined planes. From the Delaware River, the canal went up gradually from one plateau to another, crossing lakes and rivers until reaching the Lake Hopatcong area, which was its summit. From there it dropped down as it headed east toward Newark.
“It was world renowned,” said Morrell. “It overcame more elevation change than any other canal in the world, to the present day.” But with the advent of railroads, business on the canal declined. By 1924, it was abandoned and drained. Much of it has been developed, especially in more urban areas, making creation of a connected trail a tough task. A portion of the trail in the Branch Brook Park section of Newark, for example, is now the route of the city’s light rail line. “There have been some efforts in the past to create a connected trail,” said Holzinger. “Unfortunately, a good part of the canal route was sold. It is difficult to negotiate easements with all the individual property owners to get access to their lands. And it can be expensive because some owners want to be paid.”
The good news for canal trail advocates, however, is that much of the Morris Canal route is in public ownership. Dave Detrick, chairman of Warren County’s Morris Canal Committee, said 11 of 33 miles of the canal route in his county have public access right-of-ways. Near Hackettstown there is a 1.5-mile canal walkway and there is a five-mile section near Saxton Falls, among others, he said. “Problem is, those sites are not contiguous,” said Detrick. Morrell’s group, meanwhile, has been working for the past two decades to save portions of the canal route and explore greenway possibilities. They cleared a three-mile trail through Allamuchy State Park and are working on a trail initiative to connect Waterloo Village in Byram to Stanhope.
They also have canal projects under way throughout Morris County and in Pompton Lakes, Wayne, Little Falls and Woodland Park, formerly West Paterson. There are many benefits to creating a Morris Canal trail, said proponents. Historic preservation, environmental protection, education and recreation are obvious ones, they said. For Helbing, who grew up in a house in an old canal town named after Cadwallader D. Colden, second president of the Morris Canal and Banking Company, there’s also a more personal reason. “I’ve lived near the Morris Canal all of my life. It’s a great place. The canal has a great history,” said Helbing. “We need to get public awareness, to expose people to what an amazing treasure it was. “I know there will be a lot of frustration and it’s going to take a lot of hard work to do this. But I’m sure it’s going to be worth it.”