Advancing the Morris Canal Greenway
City seeks input, greater community support for 8-mile bike route
by E. Assata Wright
Reporter staff writer
May 26, 2013 | 3656 views | 0 0 comments | 59 59 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The Morris Canal is considered to be part of the Underground Railroad since abolitionists sometimes used coal boats to transport former slaves to safe havens. This legacy of the canal is memorialized with a statue (pictured) near the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail’s Essex Street stop.
The Morris Canal is considered to be part of the Underground Railroad since abolitionists sometimes used coal boats to transport former slaves to safe havens. This legacy of the canal is memorialized with a statue (pictured) near the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail’s Essex Street stop.
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This weekend, cyclists, pedestrians, and joggers will once again be able to access the Jersey Avenue footbridge, and the city has completed Phase I of construction on Berry Lane Park, one of two new municipal parks currently being built. Still, despite this progress, most residents would agree Jersey City could use more open space, bike paths, parks, passive recreation space, and similar amenities.

A plan to convert the old Morris Canal route into an urban greenway is in the works, but will need both money and community support to move it beyond its current draft phase.

At present, the city’s greenway plan – which has been mapped out by the RBA Group in conjunction with the Division of City Planning – calls for an 8.5-mile, U-shaped, on- and off-road path that will eventually link the Hudson River Walkway, the Morris Canal Historic District, Mercer Park, Berry Lane Park, the planned Hackensack River Walkway, the West Side, and the East Coast Greenway, a contiguous 3,000-mile urban bike route that will eventually connect every state from Maine to Florida.

“We want to create a route that is off-road to the greatest extent possible, because one thing the city is lacking is dedicated bike/pedestrian space,” said city planner Naomi Hsu. “The good news is a lot of [the canal route] has not been built on. But, as it is, it’s not really available for recreational space right now. Some of it is privately owned. Some of it is along the West Side and is either adjacent to or underneath Route 440. So, it’s not the most people-friendly space right now.”
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‘The concept of the Morris Canal Greenway is to provide safe biking and pedestrian access to destinations all through the city.’ – Annette Schutz
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Using funds from the New Jersey Transportation Planning Authority, the RBA Group has been studying how the city can help nurture and shape its vision for a greenway out of what currently exists on the ground. RBA has made some recommendations regarding what needs to happen to make the greenway a reality and some interim steps the city and community can take to help reach the long-term greenway vision.

“This is the first time that anyone has looked at the entire route, the entire corridor, holistically,” said Hsu.

New purpose of historic site

Since the 1980s there has been interest in Northern New Jersey in turning the old canal route into a greenway that would stretch from Jersey City to Phillipsburg, NJ.

“As far as Jersey City is concerned, the concept of the Morris Canal Greenway is to provide safe biking and pedestrian access to destinations all through the city,” said Annette Schutz, principal planner with the RBA Group. “It’s meant to be a resource for all the neighborhoods that it passes through. And it’s an opportunity to familiarize people with Jersey City’s history.”

A 102-mile waterway that once connected the Hudson and Hackensack rivers that border Jersey City, the Morris Canal was once an important commercial route, according to New Jersey state records. The canal actually extended beyond Jersey City into 35 other New Jersey municipalities, allowing boats to deliver such items as coal, iron, and other goods throughout the northern part of the state. The canal, which opened in 1831, was originally built to bring coal into New Jersey from Pennsylvania coalmines to be used in Jersey-based iron mills. Later, coal was shipped in to be used for heating purposes.

The canal is also considered to be part of the Underground Railroad since abolitionists sometimes used coal boats to transport former slaves to safe havens. (This legacy of the canal is memorialized with a statue near the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail’s Essex Street stop.)

The advent of railroads rendered the canal obsolete and the waterway was officially closed in 1924.

Getting there from here

As a way to get the greenway project closer to reality, RBA has suggested that community groups with an interest in open space and environmental issues advocate for it as a part of their ongoing work, an idea that at least some community advocates support.

“I am curious about what funding might be available to support something like this,” Charlene Burke, president of the Jersey City Parks Coalition, said recently. “But it’s a great idea and creating an urban greenway in Jersey City would be wonderful. Urban greenways have been created elsewhere, and they have become wonderful resources for the residents.”

Dan Levin, another activist who has followed plans for the Morris Canal Greenway, said more people need to be made aware of it.

“It’s a great concept,” said Levin. “I think right now more people need to know about it and what it is for it to move forward from its concept phase. There are a lot of us downtown who have been following this for a while and we want to see it move forward. But we need to get out there and generate more interest from residents in other parts of the city who maybe aren’t aware of what this concept is about.”

Residents who are interested in seeing specific plans for the Morris Canal Greenway can visit www.jcmcgreenway.org. The RBA Group and the city are accepting feedback from the public regarding the greenway through the end of the month. Comments can be submitted to Naomi Hsu via e-mail at hsun@jcnj.org or by mail at the Division of City Planning, 30 Montgomery St., 14th Floor, Jersey City, NJ 07302.

E-mail E. Assata Wright at awright@hudsonreporter.com.

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