Rich Rockwell: The Morris Canal, My Favorite Place in Baristaville

A hundred and fifty years ago, the Morris Canal was the ‘superhighway’ for freight across the state of New Jersey – mainly anthracite coal shipped from the mines in Pennsylvania to the iron forges in North Jersey. Before the canal, the Iron Forges were floundering because they were running out of fuel. They used charcoal made from trees from local forests. It took 1,000 acres of trees to power one iron forge. (If you had to choose between cutting a thousand acres of trees, and polluting the air by burning anthracite coal, which would you chose? Oh, wait… you don’t get to choose, there are no trees left.)

It took five days to get a load of cargo from Phillipsburg to Jersey City at the speed of two mules towing a boat usually guided by the boat captain’s son.

I wonder what it would have been like to live on a canal boat with your family in a space not much bigger than one of those SUVs people drive today. You would buy supplies along the way, and cook your meals on a small coal stove. Every night, you would tie up the boat and board your mules in a stable. When the canal closed in the Winter, you would look for temporary housing and temporary work until the canal reopened in the Spring.

That leads me to my favorites place in Baristaville – the remaining towpath of the Morris Canal near Wright’s Field – between Newark Avenue passing under the Berkeley Ave Bridge to the eastern boundary of Bloomfield at the eastern end of Wright’s Field. (Technically, it isn’t the ‘towpath,’ it incorporates what used to be the canal towpath and the filled-in canal. And, technically, it is ‘Wright Field,’ but everybody calls it ‘Wright’s Field’ or ‘Wrights Field.’) Wright’s Field used to be a pond called Randolph Pond. The pond was filled in and Second River was channelized by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. It is a great place to hike or bike.

In honor of the Bicentennial of Bloomfield, we will be conducting a three-mile hike on the path of the Morris Canal through Bloomfield on Saturday, July 7 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. If you’d like to join us, make a reservation. (We have limited space, so reservations are required). Visit the Historical Society of Bloomfield website for details.

And, if you’d like to take a virtual tour of the Canal, I will be repeating my presentation on the Morris Canal in Bloomfield with historic maps, photos and ‘then-and-now’ photos on Saturday, June 16. Check the HSOB website for more details. This is a repeat of the program I presented on March 27. We weren’t able to accommodate the crowd at that event, so we are repeating the program in a larger space for those who didn’t get a seat, or who missed the program.

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  1. Rich, in the Bloomfield Buzz there was mention of a HSOB walking tour of the Bloomfield Cemetery with date TBD. Any word on when that might happen?

  2. So cool, Rich. I am a history fanatic, and couldn’t get enough of the “before and after” photos you posted. Wow! The canal really added physical beauty to the area–too bad more of it couldn’t be preserved as it was. I am interested in the picture of that ancient looking house in one photo–it appears to still be there. What’s the story behind that? And the tour of the Bfield cemetery sounds fascinating–i hadn’t heard about it before SSP mentioned it. I’ve poked around there a time or two…

  3. That is the Collins House. Mimi Michalski who is on the HDRB can also chime in here on it’s history as she was working with the town a few years back to try to preserve it. Sadly it did not happen, but I know that it was on last night agenda at the council meeting. I’m sure Mimi will see this and post her reply.

  4. Apparently the Collins House was discussed at Monday’s town council meeting…

    “The Council resolved to form a committee made up of Historical Society members to investigate options for the historic Collins House, which has been condemned. Members of the council said they fear it may soon become a liability if it is not renovated, rebuilt or demolished.

    If demolished, the Council agreed that, at the very least, the foundation would remain intact to preserve its historic value.”

  5. Yes, fascinating!

    The photos and illustrations that Rich has compiled of this bygone era almost seem as if they are of entirely different place than the town we live in today. To think that this hectic and densely-populated town of ours, split nearly down the middle by the mega-highway known as the Garden State Parkway, was once instead bisected by a lazy, if not almost bucolic canal.

    Every time I drive up JFK Parkway towards Hoover Avenue I cannot help but think about the incline plane that was once there.

    I too wonder what life must have been like for the denizens of the canal, although I’m sure it’s easy to over-romanticize what I’m sure was often a less-than-enviable existence. And I hate to think of what was disposed of into that canal. But still, if we could only step back in time and experience life measured in days instead of nanoseconds.

    There are a few outfits that offer canal boat cruises along the Erie Canal during the summer months. One of these days I’m going to have to do that!

  6. I walk that path almost every day, twice a day and love it best early in the morning.

    However, I am destressed to see how many people dump their lawn clippings over the fence onto the path. The nitrogen smell from the decomposing grass is akin to a dirty litter box. Can we do anything to stop this? Even if the people doing it would turn over their “compost pile”

  7. To support this historia presentation and part of the celebration of Bloomfield Bicentennial, Spice Thai Cuisine will be providing some addional food at the reception.

  8. I meant historial presentation and Spice Thai Cuisine will be providing some additional food at the reception.

  9. Yes, the Collins House appears in several of the pictures in the slide show. The council agreed last night to let a committee form to figure out how to raise funds to stabilize the house and hopefully save it. (Full disclosure: I will be on that committee). Many thanks to Rich Rockwell for raising people’s awareness of the Morris Canal and the Collins House, and to Carlos Pomares, who serves on the Historic District Review Board with me, for wanting to save the house before it’s too late. More information, including a picture of the house as it looked yesterday when I was over there, can be found here, after the section on the redevelopment.

  10. The Collins House is one of the oldest standing houses in Bloomfield. The central portion of the house was built around 1790 by John Collins and his wife, Mary Baldwin. John emigrated from Ireland, served in the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War and was one of the founding members of the Presbyterian Society of Bloomfield from which Bloomfield got its name. John’s son Isaac and Isaac’s son, John were carpenters who built boats and bridges on the Morris Canal and they helped build and maintain the inclined plane, Plane 11 East, adjacent to their house (now the ramp on JFK Drive). Isaac built a larger addition that defines the character of the current house between 1815 and 1820. The house has a cornerstone dated 1759, believed to have been moved from an earlier structure. There is also a historic millstone on the property.

    There was a paper mill next to the house where Kinder Towers is currently located. The mill changed hands many times. It’s names included National Paper Manufacturing Company, Diamond Paper Mill, Silver Spring Paper Mill, Wymouth Paper Mill, Essex Paper Company, and most recently Marcal. The paper mill had an ample supply of water from Third River and local mill ponds, and it also leased water for hydropower from the Canal. The Collins family sold the house in 1891 to the paper mill who used it to house their caretaker. It remained the paper mill caretaker’s house through various changes of ownership. Marcal sold the property to the Township in 1981 and the Marcal Paper Mill caretaker continued to live in the house until the 2005.

    Thanks to Mimi Michalski for her tireless preservation efforts and for getting the house listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places.

  11. Thanks Rich – but unfortunately it is not yet actually listed on the Register – just applied for but needs to be resubmitted with changes. However, it does have a Letter of Significance from the Historic Preservation Office so it has a degree of protection already.

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