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Canal Watch Group Sounds Alarm

By Rikki Massand | Posted January 12, 2023


A call to “Fix Our Parks” has echoed down the Delaware & Raritan Canal State Park towpath to Trenton in hopes of reaching the ears of Gov. Phil Murphy. Central New Jersey historians and co-founders of the D & R Canal Watch nonprofit organization, Linda and Bob Barth, coordinated with the Pinelands Alliance, a member of the New Jersey Keep It Green coalition, to call upon state officials to set programs for funding the upkeep and restoration of state parks and assets — such as historical buildings and infrastructure found in many of them.

A circa 1700s house at 1439 Canal Road collapsed in December. It was used as a saloon from about 1877 to 1905 for mill workers and canal travelers.

The “Fix Our Parks” campaign notes a backlog of $600,000 worth in maintenance alone. What’s more is the sad status in comparison to our neighboring states as New Jersey is currently investing only one-sixth of what New York does and one-third of what Pennsylvania does, and two-thirds of the national average in operational expenses for state parks.


Press Conference

D & R Canal Watch held a press conference and micro-tour on December 12. It began in front of a dilapidated bridge tender’s house on Carnegie Road in Lawrence Township, just east of Route 1. The Pinelands Alliance shared pertinent information including that in recent years more than $33 million was potentially available for NJ State Parks — though the amount is significantly less than the two neighboring states’ funding levels.


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Dubbed #FixOurParks, the movement has established a website to inform the public and provide a point of connectivity for updates and proactive measures people can become involved in. Visit FixOurParksnj.org.


Bob Barth, a Somerville resident and active member of the Canal Society of NJ, noted: “Through the pandemic, we’ve seen what a valuable asset our state parks are and how unfunded they have been over several years. “The State Park Service does not have the personnel or the money to keep these historic buildings in our parks up to date. I would like to see the state include a bigger maintenance budget so they can get around to these buildings to preserve, maintain, and paint them. “Park staff have not received the support they need to perform the job that they should be doing.”


Funding Needed Now

According to the Barths, historic buildings in New Jersey parks such as the barracks, bridgetender house, and locktender’s stations along the D & R Canal are in dire need of maintenance, paint work, and roof and foundation repairs. Also, trails are becoming “cow paths” while parking facilities and restrooms are either nonexistent or degraded, they say. Ranger staffing is also at an all-time low at state parks. The Canal Watch group is urging Gov. Murphy and the Legislature to allocate more funds to the state parks operations.


As noted in the NJ State Lands Management Report, with data compiled by the Washington State Park Foundation, New Jersey state park visits per resident are half that of Pennsylvania’s and New York’s visits per resident, and two thirds of the national average. Barth told the Pinelands Alliance that state parks have been underfunded since the 1990s when Christine Todd Whitman was governor. At that time, the parks’ budgets were cut by 30 percent. “The D & R Canal Park staff is half of what it was in the 1990s, yet the land mass the D & R staff manages now has almost doubled since the park was established in the 1970s,” Barth said. “I am involved in up to a dozen state parks and each one is in trouble in this way – not having enough personnel and not having enough money to keep things up to date.”


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The D & R Canal Park encompasses 66 miles of canal, with its trails covering 70 miles in Somerset, Mercer, Hunterdon, and Middlesex counties. Thousands of Irish immigrants built the D&R Canal, which was operational as a trade route and beltway of Central NJ coal and goods transportation between 1834 and 1932. Over the course of three wars, troops and military supplies were moved along the canal. And in one year, the D & R carried more coal than the more famous Erie Canal. The D & R’s bridges were all swing bridges, pivoting horizontally, so that vessels with masts of any heights could transit on the canal. Boats from Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill Canal and Delaware Canal used the waterway and in 1866, total tonnage transported was 2,867,233 tons, 83 percent of it being coal.

The mule tenders’ barracks. The long building on the Griggstown Causeway is simply called the Long House by the State Park Service. Until Hurricane Floyd in 1999, it housed a canal museum. Despite an $800,000 restoration in 2000, it sits empty and is falling apart. Earlier this year the building was vandalized.

Bob Barth explained the conundrum of the state allocating a substantial amount of capital funding for large scale projects, as in Griggstown. One of the most intact historic sites is the restored mule-tender’s barracks. The project was done a decade ago and now the barracks are in poor shape, and every increasingly frequent flood takes a toll on facilities.

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