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Vol. LXIII, No. 25
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
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Postcards, Photos of the D&R Canal Tell the Tale of Central NJ’s Major Waterway

Dilshanie Perera

Offering a painterly glimpse of what the Delaware and Raritan (D&R) Canal was like at the turn of the last century, rare archived photos and postcards depicting the canal’s route from New Brunswick to Bordentown are on display at the D&R Greenway’s Johnson Education Center.

During the exhibition’s opening last Friday, Curator Jack Koeppel explained that the canal was a “utilitarian commercial highway” and still is a major source of drinking water for close to a million people in New Jersey, while noting that he wanted to create a romantic feeling in telling the story of the canal through images. “It’s a place that people find beautiful and connected to today, as they did then,” he said.

Through conversations with Jim Amon, the first executive director of the D&R Canal Commission, Mr. Koeppel was inspired to organize the show in the way the canal exists spatially. “Jim said to begin at the start, and that is exactly what we did, trying to get a good representation of the places along the way.”

The exhibit, entitled “Ribbon of Life,” coincides with the 175th anniversary of the canal, as well as the 20th anniversary of the D&R Greenway, and reveals historical tidbits about its title space.

William Penn is allegedly the first person to have proposed the idea of creating a waterway to connect Philadelphia and New York in 1676, though the realization of his vision was delayed until 1834. At the time the canal was seen as a safer alternative to ocean travel and faster than roads in shipping goods and transporting people.

One reason that the Johnson & Johnson headquarters is located in New Brunswick is because the canal facilitated the movement of their products, Mr. Koeppel said, pointing out a photograph of the corporation’s old factory building alongside the aqueous arterial.

Another section of the exhibit shows photographs documenting travel writer F. Hopkinson Smith’s vacation along the D&R Canal in 1887. Declaring that “canalling is the ideal way to travel,” Mr. Smith and a band of friends set off on a boat to traverse the length of the waterway.

Executive Director of the D&R Greenway Land Trust Linda Mead noted that she was intrigued by Mr. Smith’s perspective, saying that it made the exhibit even richer. “Our gallery space is one that’s very different in the community,” she said, remarking that all the shows that come through the space are related in some way to the themes of conservation and preservation.

The organization is involved in permanently preserving watershed lands and open spaces. Ms. Mead pointed out that currently public funding is running out for the protection of open space in the state. The Greenway is part of a coalition petitioning the state legislature to place a question on November’s ballot regarding stable sources of funding for open space preservation.

One of the goals of the exhibition is to underscore that conservation “doesn’t happen by itself, and that it takes effort,” Mr. Koeppel said, adding that finding out about a place’s history and “the depth of its character” only increases its importance. Indicating how the D&R Canal connects central New Jersey, he said “it is a thin sliver that we all share.”

“Ribbon of Life” will be on view until August 14 at the D&R Greenway’s Johnson Education Center at 1 Preservation Place. Gallery hours are Monday through Friday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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