Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park Trail History

New Jersey

At a Glance

Name: Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park Trail
Length: 73.6 Miles
Trail activities: Bike, Fishing, Horseback Riding, Walking, Cross Country Skiing
Counties: Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, Somerset
Surfaces: Asphalt, Crushed Stone, Dirt
State: New Jersey

A Brief History

A section of the expansive Delaware & Raritan Canal State Park Trail uses the former rail grade of what was originally the Belvidere Delaware Railroad. What was dubbed the “Bel Del” dates back to its chartering during the 1830s, soon after the canal went into service. In time, the Bel Del was acquired by the growing Pennsylvania Railroad, which used its new subsidiary primarily to handle anthracite coal movements out of eastern Pennsylvania in conjunction with connecting railroads. For many years, this branch of the PRR maintained strong traffic, although as coal and other freight evaporated, the line’s usefulness ebbed as well. The PRR went on to merge with rival New York Central, forming ill-fated Penn Central in the late 1960s. This conglomerate soon collapsed, creating the Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail) during the mid-1970s. Seeing little use for the Bel Del, Conrail abandoned much of the route by the early 1980s.

The Delaware & Raritan Canal was constructed during the height of canal fervor, with such projects as the Erie Canal and Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. Such canals had been dubbed the wave of the future in efficient transportation. Unfortunately for backers and investors of these waterways, the railroad had also recently been brought to the United States. The country’s first common carrier was the Baltimore & Ohio, chartered on February 28, 1827. Many canal interests attempted to stop or delay this newfangled technology, citing the competitive harm they would bring. While such efforts did work temporarily, the efficiency, speed, and ability to operate in all types of weather quickly proved the railroad’s superiority. The D&R Canal began construction in 1830 as a freight artery between New York and Philadelphia. It was to run between Trenton/Bordentown and New Brunswick, where boats could then use the natural waterways of the Delaware and Raritan Rivers to complete their journeys.

A feeder canal, running 22 miles south from Bull’s Island (slightly north of Lambertville) along the Delaware River to Trenton, was needed to supply water to the main canal. It was along this feeder that trains would ultimately run. The Belvidere Delaware Rail Road Company was chartered on March 2, 1836, to construct a route from Trenton to Belvidere, New Jersey, following the Delaware River between these points. Progress was initially slow, and 15 years passed before the first segment between Trenton/Bordentown and Lambertville was completed. This section was 16 miles long and opened for service on February 6, 1851. After 4 years, the entire route, 64.5 miles, to Belvidere was completed on November 5, 1855. Just before, however, the Bel Del took control of the Flemington Railroad & Transportation Company in 1854, providing a 12-mile branch from Lambertville to Flemington and a connection with what was eventually the Lehigh Valley (LV).

The Bel Del quickly proved a successful venture, Not only did the road interchange with the Camden & Amboy (later Pennsylvania Railroad) at Trenton/Bordentown, but it also funneled anthracite coal and iron out of eastern Pennsylvania. Additionally, the railroad transported other types of freight, such as agriculture, lumber, general merchandise, and various types of less-than-carload movements. The growing Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) first leased the Bel Del in 1872. On February 16, 1885, the Bel Del, Flemington Railroad, and a handful of smaller systems were merged into a wholly-owned PRR subsidiary known as the Belvidere Delaware Railroad Company, comprising 80.25 miles. The property also provided the PRR with multiple interchange connections with other notable carriers in the region, including the aforementioned LV; Delaware, Lackawanna & Western (Phillipsburg and Manunka Chunk); Lehigh & New England (Martins Creek Junction); and the Lehigh & Hudson River (Belvidere).

The postwar period witnessed a general decline in freight and passenger traffic on the Bel Del, since the public was shifting to cars and airlines for their travel needs. At the same time anthracite coal was losing demand as a heating source in favor of natural gas and other fuels. During that decade, the PRR dropped regularly scheduled passenger trains but retained some semblance of service using cheaper, self-propelled “Doodlebug” railcars. Finally, as patronage continued to decline, it was dropped entirely after October 25, 1960. On February 1, 1968, the PRR merged with New York Central to form Penn Central (PC). While the largest railroad ever created up until that time, the PC was an immediate disaster. The union was poorly planned, and incoming management from both railroads instantly clashed. After just 2 years, the company declared bankruptcy on June 21, 1970.

To save freight rail service in the Northeast, Conrail was created in spring 1976, acquiring the assets of Penn Central and a handful of other bankrupt carriers in the region. Initially, the former Bel Del was retained, but within a few years, cut from Conrail’s network when the railroad attempted to shed any trackage that was either losing money or unable to meet a certain profit margin. During autumn 1978, the final Conrail train ran between Phillipsburg and Trenton, while rail removal began the following year. By 1981, the line from Trenton to Frenchtown (roughly 31.5 miles) and which forms part of today’s Delaware & Raritan Canal State Park Trail, was pulled up. However, sections of the corridor above this point remain in use, including the branch to Flemington, by the Belvidere & Delaware River and Black River & Western.

Railroad attractions in New Jersey include the Black River & Western based in Flemington; Cape May Seashore Lines at Tuckahoe; Delaware River Railroad in Phillipsburg; Maywood Station Museum in Maywood; New Jersey Museum of Transportation in Farmingdale; Old Station Museum & Caboose in Mahwah; and the Whippany Railway Museum in Whippany.

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