The call to “Fix Our Parks” has echoed down the Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park corridor to Trenton in hopes of reaching Gov. Phil Murphy and the Legislature.
On Monday December 12, established Central Jersey historians and board members of the D & R Canal Watch nonprofit Linda and Bob Barth held a press conference together with the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, which like Preservation New Jersey is a member nonprofit of the New Jersey Keep it Green coalition. The groups have called 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.
The “Fix Our Parks” campaign states NJ’s State Parks are “Used, Abused and Underfunded.” Bob Barth, a Somerville resident and also an active member of the Canal Society of NJ, noted “Through the pandemic, it’s shown what a valuable asset our state parks are and how unfunded they have been over several years. The parks 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 – parks’ staff have not received the support they need to perform the job that they should be doing.”
In 2022 the #FixOurParks movement established a website to inform the public and provide a point of connectivity, highlighting public meetings and proactive measures people can become involved in. To learn more visit www.fixourparksnj.org/
According to Bob and Linda, historic buildings in New Jersey parks such as the barracks, bridgetender and locktender’s stations along the D & R Canal are in dire need of maintenance, paint work, roof and foundation repairs. The December 12 press conference and micro-tour of the D & R Canal was held in front of the historic yet dilapidated bridge tender’s house on Carnegie Road in Lawrence Township, east of Rt. 1 and about four miles from Trenton.
The D & R Canal Park encompasses 66 miles of canal, with its trails covering 70 miles of Central NJ in Somerset, Mercer, Hunterdon and Middlesex counties. The canal was converted into a State Park which today is both an environmental and historic resource – containing 10 National Register of Historic Places districts along its route, plus several other districts that are eligible for listing and numerous individual historic structures.
Over the course of three wars, troops and military supplies were moved along the D & R Canal. The canal was operational as a trade route and beltway of Central NJ coal and goods transportation between 1834 and 1932. In one year – 1871 – the D & R carried more total tonnage, 2.99 million tons, than the much longer and more famous Erie Canal. Over eighty percent of the 2.99 million tons was coal.
The D & R Canal’s bridges were all swing bridges, pivoting horizontally, so vessels with masts of any heights could transit on the canal. Boats from Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill Canal and Delaware Canal used the waterway.
While Bob and Linda credit employees of state parks such as the D & R Canal’s under Superintendent Patricia Kallesser, as well as the D & R Canal Commission and executive director John Hutchison, they urge Gov. Murphy and the Legislature to allocate more funds to the state park’s operations.
They commented that there’s a backlog of $600 million worth in maintenance alone. The D & R Canal Watch is concerned that the trails in state parks are becoming “cow paths” while parking facilities and restrooms at many parks are either nonexistent or degraded.
They added that interpretive services and ranger staffing are at an all-time low at NJ State Parks. “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,” Bob said, noting that state parks have been underfunded since the 1990s when Christine Todd Whitman was in the governor’s office. At that time parks’ budgets were cut by 30%.
“The D & R Canal Park staff is half of what it was in the 1990s yet the land mass the D & R manages now has almost doubled since the park was established in the 70s. 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,” he said.
The Pinelands Preservation Alliance shared other pertinent information: In recent years over $33 million was potentially available for NJ State Parks though the amount is significantly less than the two neighboring states’ funding levels.
#FixOurParks notes that according to the NJ State Lands Management Report, NJ State Park superintendents have dropped from 45 to 15, responsible for managing 51 state parks and forests, six state marinas and more.
As noted in the Report, with data compiled by the Washington State Park Foundation, New Jersey state park visits per resident are approximately half that of Pennsylvania’s and New York’s visits per resident and two-thirds of the national average.
Alison E. Mitchell, co-executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, wrote in a post on the #FixOurParks website last August, “Staffing levels down 26 percent between 2006 and 2018, despite a 13% increase in park acreage…. Only one park employee for every 36,000 visitors. State park budgets are many times smaller than those of neighboring New York and Pennsylvania….Despite the good efforts of state park managers, the lack of resources has resulted in reduced public access to parks, swimming areas, trails, campgrounds, fishing spots, nature centers, educational programs and more.”
Bob Barth explained the conundrum of the state allocating a substantial amount of capital funding for large scale projects, as in Griggstown where one of the most intact historic sites is the restored Mule Tender’s Barracks (the former museum run by the Griggstown Historical Society). The project was done years ago, but severe flooding including from storm Ida in September 2021 wreaked havoc on the Canal region, and the building is now in dismal condition.
Help may be on the way with planning and management of Park facilities – in fall 2022, the New Jersey Historic Trust announced its $550,000 grant to the D & R Canal Commission for a project to revise and update its 1989 Master Plan.
The resolution approved by the Canal Commission at its February 15, 2023 meeting explains, “In 1973 the Delaware and Raritan Canal and 17 structures related to the canal’s operation in the 19th Century were placed on the New Jersey State Register and National Register of Historic Places, including locks, milestones, canal houses, spillways, and other engineering features of the canal…Whereas, the canal’s immediate surroundings and the communities through which it flows are also an important part of the canal’s historic character, and that the future development of the D & R Canal State Park and the surrounding Review Zone would foster a greater appreciation for the historic character of the canal…Whereas, the future preservation of the historic resources of the D & R Canal State Park can be best accomplished by the comprehensive revision and update of the 1989 Master Plan….The Commission desires to further the principles of historic preservation set forth in the “Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park Act of 1974” and regulations adopted pursuant thereto at NJAC 7:45 through the acceptance of the grant ($550,000) from the New Jersey Historic Trust.”
The D & R Canal Watch maintains an active calendar of events, and an annual fundraiser each summer with a canal boat dinner cruise in Easton, Pa. Their upcoming event is a 10-mile round trip History Bike Ride on Saturday March 18, beginning at 10 am at the Griggstown Causeway between Franklin Township and Montgomery Township.
Author, content strategist and historic preservation activist Rikki N. Massand serves as Associate Editor of his hometown Montgomery News in Somerset County. He also covers Hunterdon County government, planning and economic development for The Hunterdon Review newspaper and freelances for multiple tristate area ‘newszines.’
Massand is a regional historian and local advocate in his present municipal government-appointed roles on the Montgomery Township Landmarks Preservation Commission and as township liaison to the Delaware & Raritan Canal Commission. We are proud to announce he was recently appointed as an Advisory member of the Somerset County Cultural & Heritage Commission.
Massand holds master’s degrees from Columbia University and Quinnipiac University. His work has appeared in print titles including China Daily, amNew York, Syosset Advance, AsianWeek and more.