The Morris Canal & Lake Hopatcong – Part I

In the years that followed America’s independence, little development occurred in the area around Lake Hopatcong.  Although iron had already been found and mined in the area surrounding the lake, the difficulty of getting it to market caused the industry to languish.

morris_canal_-_1Following the War of 1812, the United States entered a great era of canal building.  It can perhaps be considered America’s first attempt at interstate highways.  Suddenly, through the use on canals, there was a means of transporting large amounts of cargo great distances in what was then considered a very short period of time.  It was in this era that the idea of the Morris Canal was conceived. morris_canal_-_2

While coal existed in the mountains of Pennsylvania and iron in the hills of New Jersey, horse and wagon was simply not an efficient means to bring them to market.  Legend has it that George Macculloch was fishing on Lake Hopatcong one day in the early 19th century  when the idea came to him of solving this problem through the building of a canal which crossed northern New Jersey connecting the Delaware and Hudson Rivers, as well as such emerging industrial centers as Paterson, Newark and Jersey City.  Regardless of how the idea actually originated, the Morris Canal and Banking Company was chartered on December 31, 1824. 

morris_canal_-_3From its outset, nothing about this Canal would be easy.  Unlike other areas which were building canals, northern New Jersey’s hilly geography did not lend itself to a canal.  For canals to function, you need to create stretches of flat land so that the horses or mules could pull the canal boats.  Since this is not always possible, canal locks were often used on American canals.  A canal lock is really a holding pen in which the boat is raised or lowered boats by adding or releasing water.  In this manner, the boat floats up or down to the desired level.  Unfortunately, canal locks can only handle changes in terrain of some twelve feet.  However, this would not be workable in northern New Jersey where some of the inclines approach 100 feet.  To overcome this situation, an ingenuous system of combining the usage of locks with inclined planes was devised to make the Morris Canal possible.morris_canal_-_4

Canal plains were not a new idea, but they were never used before to the sophisticated level they would be on the Morris Canal.  In a plane, the canal boat would be floated onto a carrier which would then transport the boat up or down a railroad looking track via a rope or cable.  Since the only energy source available was water, a system of turbines and gears was devised to power each plane.  Through this technology, water power alone was used to lift boats weighing more than 70 tons up and down the mountains of northern New Jersey.

morris_canal_-_4For any canal, a significant amount of water is needed. The lake we know today as Hopatcong was to be the Morris Canal’s single most important water source.  Great Pond had first been dammed in the 1750’s for a forge located where the Hopatcong State Park is today.  In order to harness the lake’s water power as a source of energy, the Brookland Forge had built an earth dam which had caused the Lake to be rise some 6 feet.  As a result of the forge, the expanded Great Pond increasingly became known as Brookland Pond, a name which was soon corrupted to Brooklyn Pond. 

morris_canal_-_5When the Morris Canal was in its planning stages, it was clear that great amounts of water would be needed to supply the 100 plus miles of waterway.  It was at this time the decision was made to further raise the height of Great Pond.  In the 1820’s, the existing dam was replaced with a combination canal lock and dam which caused the Lake to rise approximately six additional feet.  This second raising of the lake flooded much of the surrounding shoreline, connected Little Pond to Great Pond, and created Lake Hopatcong as we know it today. 

Copyright the Lake Hopatcong Historical Museum, 2010.

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