Bool’s Island Formed Natural Opening for Waterway;
Early Engineers Found;
Cholera Took Heavy Toll Among Workers
Entirely Abandoned, A Sorry Spectacle
by Egbert T. Bush, Stockton, NJ,
published in the Hunterdon County Democrat, June 8, 1933
The project of connecting the Delaware River with the Raritan by means of a canal caught the imagination of engineers and business men quite early.
In 1804 a route was examined by a commission, and a private company was authorized by the Legislature to proceed with the construction of a canal. Judge Morris was made president of the company and General Braley was Hunterdon County’s representative on the Board of Directors.1 The project failed, but for just what reason, we are not fully informed. The enterprise was sure to be costly, and its financial success was problematical, to say the least. Still, the thing looked feasible, and the project refused to die.2
In 1816 and again in 1821, we are told, the Legislature appointed commissioners to report upon a route and also upon the advisability of constructing such a canal. The reports being favorable, a joint-stock company was authorized to go ahead with the work. The snug sum of $100,000 was paid to the State of New Jersey for the privilege. Much enthusiasm prevailed and the prospects were very bright. But for some reason Pennsylvania objected to taking water from the Delaware. The enterprise was again laid aside, but not abandoned.3
Capitalized for $1,000,000
In 1828-29, petitions were again pouring in, and the agitation became intense. By act of February 4, 1830, a corporation known as The Delaware and Raritan Canal Company, with capital stock set at $1,000,000 was authorized to construct the canal. The charter demanded not less than fifty feet in width at the water line and a depth of not less than five feet. It also empowered and directed the company to construct a feeder from the Delaware River, said feeder to be not less than thirty feet wide at the water line and the water therein not less than four feet deep. This feeder was to be so constructed that it might and would itself serve as a canal. The work was begun in 1830 and completed in 1834. Canvass White was chief engineer of the entire work, including the feeder. The upper section of the feeder, in which Hunterdon County is most interested, was under control of Ashbel Welsh of Lambertville.
From the date of deeds conveying the right of way, it appears that the work at the upper end was mostly done in 1833 and 1834; but many conveyances bear later dates, indicating that when the canal was formally opened, much work was yet to be done and many things were yet to be adjusted.4
A Natural Opening
When seeking a location for the head of the feeder, the keen eye of the engineer caught the advantages of “Bool’s Creek,” the long slim arm of the Delaware embracing Bool’s Island on the left. “Let Nature help,” said his business instinct to Canvass White; “she is holding out to you an ideal head for the feeder.” He shaped the creek to suit his purpose and made it a part of this auxiliary canal. Thus Bool’s Island is still an island in reality, with a half-mile stretch of its surrounding waters a stream shaped and controlled by man, but not by man originated.5
The beginning of this feeder is just above Raven Rock. But there was no such village in those days. The hamlet at the upper end of what is now Raven Rock, was then called “Saxtonville,” taking its name from Nathaniel Saxton—”Old Natty Saxton,” as I remember to have heard people still calling him in the 1850’s. He probably owned the stone tavern, though he was not its keeper, when the feeder was constructed. He is believed to have built that tavern soon after 1808. It is still standing, still occupied and still unmistakably showing what it once was.6
We find that by deed dated April 8, 1908, Nathaniel Price, Sheriff, conveyed to Nathaniel Saxton 30 acres on the upper end of “Bull’s Island,” and 10 acres opposite. On this 10-acre lot the tavern was evidently built soon after. And a good investment it was, if traditions concerning it during the construction of the feeder may be taken as verities. Saxton was a prominent man in his day, holding several tracts here and much property in various parts of the county. He died in 1850. Nothing has been found to show that he ever conveyed any land directly to the Canal Company. But a part of his first purchase here is certainly crossed by the feeder.7
Readings Owned Land
The head of the feeder is opposite the farm later owned by Deborah, wife of William Reading. William was a son of Joseph Reading and direct descendant of Governor John Reading, once owner of an immense tract spreading along the Delaware and extending far eastward. Some of his descendants claim that the tract contained 150,000 acres.But that appears to be a trifle too generous.8 However, that may be, the feeder clearly starts on the old Reading tract, which once covered the river bank down to and including Reading’s Ferry, now Stockton. According to records held by the late Dr. George E. Reading of Woodbury, Governor Reading built the mansion house which is now the home of Mrs. Dorothy Allen, away back in 1698. If that date is correct, it seems more likely that the house was built by the Governor’s father, Col. John Reading.9
Extracts from a few of the conveyances here may serve to give a personal touch and make us feel ourselves “in at the making.”
We find a deed by William Kugler and wife for a lot “Beginning at . . . thence by lands of William Johnson to low water mark of the river Delaware; thence up the same the several courses thereof, to wit, South Seventy and a half degrees west six chains and fifty-four links; South seventy-two degrees west three chains and eighty-three links; South eighty-one and a sixth degrees West two chains and thirty-seven and a half links; South eighty-four degrees West five chains and fifty links; South five and a half degrees East one chain and twenty-one links across the Laoklong [Lockatong] creek, as it runs at present.” &c.
To the modern surveyor this might seem a strange way to get “up” the Delaware River. However, we must not forget that rivers, as well as scribes, sometimes do strange things in their struggle to “get there.”10
By deed dated July 6 , William Biles conveyed to Canvass White, a lot “adjoining a Lot Purchased by said Company of Andrew D. W. Stout and wife the 18th day of June 1833.” We further find that Andrew D. W. Stout and wife conveyed to the Canal Company two tracts of land, June 1, 1833, for $1,252.37, one containing 28.77 acres and the other 3.82 acres, the Company agreeing to do the least possible damage to the fishery or fisheries along the bank.”11
Such care to defend the fisheries is manifest in many of the deeds for the right of way. And fisheries were numerous along much of the route. One in particular, then known as the “Tortle Fishery,” is still traditionally one of the best, if not the very best, then between Trenton and Phillipsburg.12
August 28, 1835, George Johnson and Mary, his wife, conveyed to the Canal Company 3.57 acres of land, “Beginning at . . . the grist mill tail race,” and “excepting thereout the right which the brothers and sisters of the said George Johnson or their representatives had or have to fish in the river Delaware on the land hereby conveyed.”
This George Johnson was a son of Martin Johnson, who owned much land here and elsewhere, one farm here extending beyond and including the famous hill known as the “Federal Twist.” He built the stone farm house on his homestead, now owned and occupied by Wilson Johnson.
A “Fish Basket”
As we go farther down, we find that William L. Prall and Jacob Lambert, for the consideration of $200, conveyed to the Delaware and Raritan Company “All their right, title and interest, and all manner of privilege vested in and accruing to them or either of them, and all manner of privilege which was intended so to be by reason of and under the provisions of a certain act of the Legislature of the State of New Jersey, passed at Trenton January 24, 1814, entitled an act to authorize William L. Prall and Jacob Lambert to erect a wing dam in the river Delaware” &c.13
This wing dam was evidently meant for a “fish basket,” to be erected near Prallsville, now a part of Stockton. The remains of such a structure are still visible near the “falls,” a slight drop in the river. This class of fish basket was made by extending a wing dam diagonally out from the shore, giving a wide “mouth” gaping in the direction from which they were supposed to move. Naturally, on coming to such obstruction, the fish would swim along the wall, thus keeping their own general course, until they came to a small opening near the shore. Thru this opening they would madly rush, only to find themselves in a huge “fike” [sic] or other device from which there was no escape. This was no uncommon device for taking advantage of the heedless creatures in the old days, a device long ago prohibited by law.
December 6, 1822, Thomas P. Holcombe and wife conveyed to the Canal Company 2.87 acres of land, “Beginning at a stake, the easterly corner of land belonging to the heirs of William Mitchell, deceased, and in line of William Scarborough’s land on the eastern side of the Delaware and Raritan Canal feeder, . . . thence by land of Asher Johnson.” This lot was sold from what later became the Eden B. Hunt farm, and after him the one so long owned by his son, the late Clarkson T. Hunt.14
November 13, 1835, Asher Johnson and his wife Mary Ann conveyed to the Canal Company two lots for $1,500. The first containing 2.44 acres, “situate below the Centre Bridge land, Begins at a point sixty-four links northwesterly from the center of the feeder, in line of Thomas P. Holcombe’s land.” The other, “Being above the Centre Bridge, Beginning at a point seventy-eight links northeasterly from the center of said feeder, and in the northwesterly line of the Centre Bridge Company’s land” &c. “Excepting unto the said party of the first part and to his heirs and assigns a common use, with the said party of the second part, of the shore of the river Delaware as a landing place, but no wharf or other fixture shall be erected by the said party of the first part, their heirs or assigns.”
Asher Johnson, another son of Martin, owned the tavern property and much other land here at that time.15
We find that in 1836 John Hoffman and Catharine his wife conveyed to the Delaware and Raritan Canal Company 2.11 acres of land lying farther up the river, in consideration of $3,000. The deed says: “The further consideration being that the party of the second part shall pay all costs of a suit between the parties now pending in the Supreme Court of the State of New Jersey, not to exceed $193. And the party of the first do hereby release and discharge said Canal Company from all claim for damage which they may have done . . . to the said Hoffman’s fishery.16
A Successful Suit
It appears from this that a suit for damage to the fishery had been carried all the way up to the Supreme Court and that it was finally settled by the purchase of a small tract of land for a good round sum, together with paying the costs of the suit then pending.
It is also found that George Johnson and wife for one dollar conveyed to the Canal Company, May 14, 1835, a certain fishery on the river Delaware situate . . . near Bool’s Island formerly belonging to Martin Johnson deceased, and the right or claim for damage to said fishery, which might have been done by the said party of the second part.”
In this transaction we are left to guess what the additional consideration was. But it is safe to suppose that nobody was then selling a fishery and a claim for damages without receiving value in full. Too many thrills accompanied the drawing-out of the nets loaded with shiny, flapping and delicious shad with here and there a fighting sturgeon.
We should not overlook the diggers and scrapers, the stone masons and bridge builders engaged in this big progressive enterprise. Of the laborers herded along the bank of the river, slowly digging and shaping the “big ditch,” vivid memories by older people are traditionally retained. Other articles have told of the scourge of cholera which left scores of them sleeping above Prallsville, in woodland graves marked by unlettered native stones, still gradually disappearing. But nothing daunted the courage of those brawny laborers or the optimism of their “superiors.” In spite of every hindrance, the work went along in that slow and laborious way of which we of the present day have little conception.
A Boon for 20 Years
For almost twenty years the feeder was a boon to the life and business of the adjacent and neighboring communities. Then came the railroad, offering facilities for rapid travel and speedy transportation of goods. Still the feeder held a fair share of business in transporting stone and other cheap and heavy commodities. But even that was gradually lost. People were fast developing the modern haste. They were no longer content to patronize the slow-moving canal boats, no matter how cheap or efficient the service.
But the canal itself had become a fixed fact, a part of the community life. Nobody wanted or ever expected to spare it. Its banks were well kept and for much of its course had become beautiful. Now all is changed. How sad it is to look upon the sickly stream with its crumbling and neglected banks. The whole thing fast becoming a liability instead of an asset, a menace instead of a blessing, a monstrosity rather than a thing of beauty!17
Railroad Supplants Canal
Already the railroad, which supplanted the canal, seems to be rapidly following it in the time-worn path of disuse and disintegration. Both seem doomed to become things of the past. And what will fill their place? Nothing; for nothing can ever quite do that, though other means of transportation are rapidly developing.18 These may be quicker in some ways better and more convenient. But they are more costly and much more dangerous. There was no trouble about dodging a canal boat or a train of cars. Each of these had its allotted path, and we were unconcerned.19 Now, if we venture upon the public highway whether for pleasant stroll or upon some business bent, we must be as watchful as a crow engaged in pulling corn, and in much greater danger of being killed. The crow flies to safety upon the least suspicion of danger; we, though knowing that the danger constant, are likely to be caught in the maze of its bewildering manifestations. All will readily agree that the new may prove to be the better ways. But no thoughtful person can help regretting that, in our heedless haste to grasp what is better in the new we have needlessly abandoned much that was safe and good in the old.
- Judge Morris was Judge Robert Morris, U. S. District Judge for New Jersey, 1790-1815. The company was called “The New Jersey Navigation Company,” with Gov. William Paterson one of its strongest supporters. Gen. Braley was actually Gen. Joseph Brearley of Maidenhead (Lawrenceville) who died in 1805. ↩
- Bush is correct. The company failed to raise the $100,000 needed for construction. ↩
- In 1816, John Randel Jr. surveyed a route that was close to what was eventually decided on. Gov. Mahlon Dickerson strongly supported it, but the Legislature, leery of “internal improvements” financed by the government, would not approve it. The story of Pennsylvania and the disputed water rights is an interesting one. ↩
- Work on the feeder canal began in 1832, but deeds from landowners to the Canal Company were recorded from 1831 through at least 1848. For an example of a sale related to the canal at Raven Rock, see Saxtonville Mill’s Last Chapter.↩
- The creek was closed off at the southern end of the island, as can be seen on Google maps. ↩
- Bush wrote more about the Saxtonville Tavern in his article “Raven Rock Was Once Bool’s Island.” When he states here that the building “still unmistakably” shows “what it once was,” he is writing of it with its two-story porch still intact, which gave the building very much of the look of an inn. ↩
- Nathaniel Saxton sold the tavern property in 1836 to Richard Bennett. But the ten-acre lot that Bush describes here was not the tavern lot; it was the mill lot that Saxton jointly owned with George Holcombe. ↩
- The 150,000 acres was a tract known as the “Lotting Purchase,” which was land purchased from the Indians on behalf of the West Jersey Proprietors by John Reading, William Biddle and John Wills. It was never the personal property of John Reading. He purchased his own 1500-acre “Mount Amwell” from the proprietors. ↩
- It is true that the original mansion north of Stockton was built by Col. John Reading who died in 1717, rather than by his son Gov. John, who built his own mansion on land he acquired in present Raritan Township. As to the date when the mansion house in Delaware Township was built, 1698 is too early. Reading probably did not move to Amwell Twp. until about 1705. The original “mansion” is no longer standing. In its place is a handsome stone house probably built by Col. John Reading’s grandson Robert. ↩
- Bush is referring to the course running “up river” when the directions in the deed all go south. That is because going upriver from Stockton to just south of Raven Rock the river actually runs southwest. ↩
- Andrew D. W. Stout is buried in the Lambertville Cemetery. He died four months after selling his lots to the canal company, on Oct. 10, 1833, age 55 years 11 months. I have not determined exactly where this property was located, but I suspect it was south of Lambertville. I know little of William Biles, other than that he was named one of the executors of the estate of Capt. John Lambert of Lambertville in 1827.↩
- According to Phyllis D’Autrechy’s book on fisheries, Turtle Fishery, owned by Samuel Reading, was located at the boundary between Kingwood and Delaware Townships. Fisheries were valuable back then; in 1838, Reading’s estate valued his five shares in the fishery at $1000. ↩
- Wm. L. Prall (1788-1848) was the son of John Prall, Jr. and Amelia Coryell. Jacob Lambert (1786-1839) was married to Letitia Prall, daughter of John Prall, Jr. Prall and Lambert were in partnership from about 1814 to 1821. They ran the store in Prallsville, and ran themselves deep into debt. ↩
- This farm was located between Brookville and Stockton. Bush wrote about the farm in his article “Old Hunt Farm a Point of Interest.” ↩
- That tavern property is now known as the Stockton Inn. Johnson no doubt needed access to the river to supply his tavern. ↩
- This John Hoffman may have been John Huffman, a neighbor of Martin Johnson’s, who owned the “Hardscrabble Fishery” located at the mouth of the Lockatong Creek. ↩
- Fortunately, that is no longer the case. Now that the canal is a state park, and a source of drinking water, it has been given a new lease on life. The Canal is once again beautiful and beloved. ↩
- The irony here is that the railroad bed has been transformed into a hiking path along the canal. ↩
- The canal did present hazards to the very young or the inebriated who seemed to regularly fall in and drown, as the Hunterdon newspapers dutifully reported. ↩