Jim Lee and the Morris Canal

House On A Hill

Story and photos by Art Charlton

Thousands of people over the years have visited the home in Warren County where Jim and Mary Lee raised their five children, but Jim Lee, Jr. figures his fifth grade class took the first tour his dad ever gave, back in 1953.

"That's probably the first trip ever," Lee, Jr. said, recalling that his class walked from the old Stewartsville School on North Main Street, Greenwich Township, a mile or so away.

Lee Museum
The former planetender's house at the Morris Canal's Inclined Plane #9 West in Greenwich Twp., Warren County, was the long-time home of noted canal historian Jim Lee, Sr. and his wife, Mary. Today it houses a collection of Morris Canal artifacts as the Jim and Mary Lee Museum, owned by the Warren County government.

What made the Lee household worth the walk was the property's history, much of which was still buried on that day in 1953. Jim Lee, Sr., a railroad conductor who grew up in Phillipsburg, was so fascinated with the Morris Canal that he bought what had been the site of one of the canal's inclined planes, and moved his young family to a trim two-story house where the man who operated the plane had lived.

Within a few years, Lee Sr. began to excavate the remains of the canal plane and the powerhouse that operated it, and embarked on an avocation that resulted in him becoming one of the foremost experts on the Morris Canal. His book The Morris Canal, A Photographic History was first published in 1973, and reprinted several times. That publication, along with his 1977 history, Tales the Boatmen Told, piqued interest in the canal that conquered the hills of northern New Jersey.

Lee was born in 1917, only a few years before the canal ceased operating in 1924. During his youth, some canal sections still held water, and boatmen could still be found. "He grew up in Phillipsburg, and did get in on the tail end of old canalers being there at the boat basin in Phillipsburg," Lee Jr. said. "He and his buddies would build a raft out of old junk, and paddle around the boat basin," the son added, explaining the boys would hear stories from the old tiller sharks and other canal workers they encountered.

Lee grew up and married a local girl, Mary Mann. "He didn't really know when he met her that her family was involved in the canal," their eldest son said, but his interest in the Morris Canal was rekindled by hearing stories from his mother-in-law, Isabelle Lenstrohm Mann, whose father and grandfather had been a canal boat captains. In fact, Isabelle was born on a canal boat, somewhere between Washington and Hackettstown.

The Lee family started out in a home located at Plane #10 West, living with Isabelle Mann (Jim Lee, Jr. lives next to that house today). In 1946, Lee Sr., home from serving in World War II and working on the Central Railroad of New Jersey, bought what had been the plane tender's house at Plane #9 West, and within a few years started his own archeological dig there.

When the canal was abandoned in the 1920s, the owners dismantled the above-ground structures for the planes, and pushed the demolition rubble into the underground chamber that held the turbine and gears. What the canal company pushed into the hole, Jim Lee wanted to take back out.

"As early as 1957, we were trying to excavate the turbine hole," said Lee Jr., who is now 65 and retired. Work went slowly at first, all done by hand, until Lee Sr. made a deal with someone he knew who owned a tow truck. "Once we had that tow truck, it only took us three weeks to excavate both of those holes," Lee Jr. said, referring to the turbine hole and the separate chamber for the penstock, where the water dropped from a height of 47 feet to power the turbine.

Jim Lee, Jr., takes visitors underground to the turbine house, where the Scotch reaction turbine - the massive, cast iron device in the foreground - was located.

After clearing away the rubble that filled the hole, Lee found the turbine still there, although broken and tilted on its side. Eventually, the turbine hole was restored so that Lee could take visitors through the tailrace -- the tunnel that carried the water out of the turbine -- up to the turbine room itself, to see how the inclined plane was powered.

In years past, a visit to the Lee property was a more informal thing. Except for an annual bus tour of canal sites conducted by the Warren County Morris Canal Committee, a visitor would have to contact the Lees or just stop by for a look. "We'd be having Sunday dinner, and people would come up the lane and interrupt dinner. My dad would always go out, and my mom would have to put his dinner aside," Lee Jr. said, although he added, "I don't think they ever turned anyone away from a canal visit."

After Mary Lee passed away in 1998, Jim Lee, Sr. agreed to sell the property to Warren County, while retaining life rights to the house. After his death in 2007 at age 89, the county and canal buffs, including Lee family members, came up with a management plan for the property and turned part of the house into a museum that opened last year.

Inside the museum, visitors can see canal items such as the feed box that held grain for the mule or horse teams that pulled the canal boats. Atop the feed box, on the left, is one of the hand tools used to dig the canal

The museum room inside the planetender's house is located in what was a playroom when the Lee kids were growing up. Jim Lee, Sr. later used it as an office, crammed with canal photos, information and memorabilia. The desk where he worked on his canal research is still there, now holding a television that plays slide shows of Lee's photos and literature about the canal. The room contains a variety of canal artifacts, like the tiller and a feed box from a canal boat, a mule collar, and the conch shell that Mary Lee's grandfather would blow to alert the lock tenders of the approach of his canal boat. In one corner is a "Boatman's Cook," a small cast iron stove used on the deck of a canal boat, its short chimney intended to allow it to pass under the low bridges over the canal. Diagrams and paintings of canal scenes adorn the walls, and a model of a canal boat in an inclined plane cradle car dominates a table on one side of the room.

A visit also includes a walk around the property to see remnants of the inclined plane, displays of canal artifacts found there, and a trip through the low tailrace tunnel into the turbine chamber, its damp walls now showing stalactites produced as water seeps through the lime mortar in its cut stone walls.

Tour and museum guides are volunteers from the county's canal committee, and Lee family members, including Jim Lee, Jr., his son, Jim Lee III, and Terry Lee, another son of Jim and Mary Lee. "I doubt that I would still be volunteering and doing this if it weren't for the family history part of it," Lee Jr. said, pointing out the connections his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents had to the canal. "But the engineering of it, the pure history of it, interests me."

The once-a-month hours coincide with those at another county-owned canal site, the Warren County Historical Learning Center at Bread Lock Park, named for a canal lock near New Village in Franklin Township where a store sold provisions including fresh-baked bread to canalers. The park includes some remnants of the canal, a working model of Lock #7 West - the "Bread Lock" - as well as models of Plane #7 West in the Bowerstown section of Washington Township.

Visitors can see other Morris Canal sites elsewhere in Warren County. In Phillipsburg, the stone arch that marked the entrance to the canal still stands at the edge of the Delaware River at Market Street off South Main Street. Canal boats carrying coal on Pennsylvania's Lehigh Canal swung across the river and onto the Morris Canal to continue eastward. In Hackettstown, visitors can stroll the towpath where the canal runs through a wooded area at Florence W. Kuipers Memorial Park. Another good spot for a hike along the former canal towpath is in Allamuchy Mountain State Park. At Saxton Falls, Guard Lock 5 West allowed canal boats to move between the canal proper and a section of the Musconetcong River. Although the lock has been filled in, the tops of its stone walls are visible, and the outline of a canal boat is painted on the ground, giving a good idea of its size of the close fit in a lock.

Plane Talk

Jim Lee, Jr., stands at the mouth of the tailrace, which emptied water that turned the turbine to power the canal's inclined plane.

Think of it as an engineering marvel that climbed the hills of North Jersey, or picture a scene from bygone days as a pair of mules towed a boat at a leisurely pace. Either way, some basic understanding of the history and technology involved will enhance a visit to any of the Morris Canal sites that are available to the public.

Opened in 1831 with a 90-mile route between Phillipsburg and Newark, the canal was expanded in 1836 to Jersey City, making it a 102.15-mile trip between the Delaware and Hudson rivers.

What really distinguished the Morris Canal from other 19th Century waterways was the use of the inclined plane. While the canal also employed locks for elevation changes of up to 20 feet, it utilized 23 inclined planes for the larger elevation changes. Plane 9 West, where the Lee family lived, surmounted the greatest change in elevation, raising and lowering boats 100 feet using the 1,600-foot-long plane.

To envision the inclined plane, picture a boat trailer that you back into the water to drop off or retrieve your boat: The boat floats on or off the trailer, which pulls the boat out of the water and takes it to water in another location. When using the inclined plane, a canal boat floated onto the cradle car, which ran on a set of tracks. A long cable attached to either end of the cradle car moved it on the tracks, and after the boat was either hauled up the slope or lowered down it, depending on the direction of travel, it floated back into the next watered section of canal and went on its way, towed by its mule or horse team.

In its earliest days, the canal used a simple waterwheel to turn the pulleys that wound and unwound the cable. By the 1860s, the canal had been enlarged and upgraded to use a Scotch reaction turbine to operate the inclined plane. Water flowing from the upper level of the canal cascaded down a J-shaped tube, causing the massive cast iron turbine on the short side of the J to float a fraction of an inch from the water pushing up from below and begin to spin. Soon the turbine was rotating at 67 revolutions per minute and spinning the attached gears, providing the muscle to move the thousands of feet of three-inch-thick cable that attached to the cradle car, raising and lowering boats that when laden with cargo could weigh 70 tons or more.

Coal was the canal's main freight, fueling the iron operations throughout northern New Jersey and spurring much of the state's Industrial Age growth. However, iron ore and iron products, lime, farm produce, bricks, hides, lumber, manure, and cider, beer and whiskey were among the goods hauled on the Morris Canal.

The only time the canal operated profitably was in the 1860s -- the need for transporting goods during the Civil War helped with that -- but the canal struggled on to the 1920s before it finally went out of business, falling victim to faster transportation modes including the railroads.

The Jim and Mary Lee Museum, located on County Route 519, 1/2 mile south of Route 57 intersection east of Phillipsburg, is open the first Sunday of each month, April-October, from 1-4 pm, and by special arrangement at other times. Contact the Warren County Land Preservation Department at 908/453-3252 for information or to arrange a group tour. The address for obtaining directions is 477 County Route 519, Stewartsville NJ 08886. Warren County Historical Learning Center at Bread Lock Park: 908/689-6350

Morris Canal Greenway

Nearby accommodations and attractions

  • The Farm In Harmony
  • 7-acre military themed Corn Maze, with mini maze for little ones, open Wed.-Sun. through November 10. Fresh produce at farmstand or schedule pick-on-demand. Homemade soaps available online. Always a discount for Veterans with proper ID.

    231 Brainards Road, Harmony 08865, 908/283-0721

  • Bread Lock Park
  • A canal boat captain and her daughters navigate the Bread Lock in June, 1863.

    , ,

  • Wild Ridge Plants
  • Nursery propagated native plants available wholesale or retail by appointment. Our plants are chemical-free and local provenance. Consulting and growing services, presentations, guided walks.

    , Pohatcong, 908/319-7230

  • Wattles Stewardship Center
  • NJ Audubon's thirty-fifth outpost is a model for blending environmental awareness, wildlife habitat, and agriculture.

    1024 Anderson Road\r, Port Murray 07865, 908-366-7781

  • The Willows
  • Exquisite meal preparation using the finest ingredients under the supervision of our exceptional executive chef. Unsurpassed cuisine from plated meals to hors d'ouvres to elaborate buffets and everything in between. Flexibility is our specialty! Cozy tap room, on and off premise catering, special events. Open 7 days for lunch and dinner in the beautiful lower Musconetcong Valley.

    288 Anderson Rd, Asbury 08802, 908-574-5101


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kathlyn pecoraro
30 Jul 2014, 20:16
My greatgrandfather worked the n
morris canal. His name was john torrance.

He had about six sons who worked with him. They were from easton and of scotch descent. Any info?
Wil Bullivant
25 Mar 2010, 13:58
I stopped by the Jim and Mary Lee Museum a few weeks ago to see what is going on since my last visit. I talked with Jim III for about a half hour and was impressed with his continued enthusiasm with the museum and the improvements planned for the future.\r\nI encourage anyone with an interest in history and technology to visit the museum. A visit is informative, interesting, and a chance to meet some great people. I learn something new every time I stop by and I'm always impressed with the warmth and friendliness of the Lees and the museum volunteers.\r\nThank you also, Art, for the great article.\r\nI keep listening for the sound of the mule's hooves, the call of the conch shell horn and a glimpse of one of the Fomous Tiller Sharks along the tow path.\r\nWil Bullivant, Asbury, NJ
Glenn Lewis
24 Mar 2010, 10:22
I met Jim Lee while I worked on the Central Railroad (ConRail)in about 1975 or 6 at what was called Track 5 at Penn Station in Newark. I knew he was the MC historian and I was very excited to meet him in person. He was due in on the P'burg train. He invited me to his home to tour the plane, which I did. It was a great day. I also interviewed him years later for an article for this publication. He and Mary did a great thing for future generations.
Donald Hummer
27 Oct 2008, 19:28
My grand father worked the canal. I have a copy of "tales",by James Lee. I am hoping to visit my cousin Dick Hummer next summer who helped Mr. Lee do some research on his book. My Grandfather wrote some poetry Mr. Lee used in his book. I would love to see the Museum. I'll try to have our reunion scheduled on the first Saturday of the month.\r\n\r\nDon Hummer Lake Shore Minnesota
Wil Bullivant
07 Jul 2008, 09:49
I had the pleasure of taking the Jim and Mary Lee Museum tour on July 6.\r\nThe tour was fascinating and very informative and an excellent opportunity to see a part of our history first hand. Above all, I was pleased to meet Jim, Jr.; Terry, and Jim III who are cerrying on Jim, Sr's enthusiasm for keeping the canal's history alive. \r\nThank you for being such wonderful hosts and sharing your knowledge and enthusiasm for museum, the canal and our history. I'm sure Jim and Mary are looking down at you proudly. Thanks for keeping their vision and legacy going.
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