Locktenders on the D&R Canal

The following excerpts are from Franklin Township, Somerset County, NJ: A History, by William B. Brahms:

The Locktender’s House is at Lock 9, south of Griggstown. The water drops 8 feet there. Terhune said the locktender, or lock-keeper, was very important. His efficiency, or lack of it, could make a big difference to the canal users. Canal boats followed no schedule. When one approached, the canaller blew a conch horn. The locktender replied on a whistle or bugle. One blast meant it was clear to proceed. Three blasts meant to hold up.


This is the view approaching Lock #9 in Griggstown from the towpath, with the locktender’s house on the right and his tender’s station visible near the lock. (from Images of America: Rocky Hill, Kingston & Griggstown)

At the locktender’s signal, a boat entering from the south passed through the gate into the filled lock. The gate closed behind the boat, and the locktender opened the wickets to let water out slowly. This lowered the boat. After the boat was lowered, the gates were opened and the vessel continued on its way. The procedure was reversed for vessels approaching from the north…

Early Griggstown residents used to place jars on their fences to entice the canallers to toss coal into them. They hoped to accumulate enough coal for the winter, and perhaps more. The canallers seemed to welcome the distraction along the way and to have a chance to test their tossing skill.

The canal years were a wonderful time for the youngsters who lived along the waterway. A loud horn would announce the arrival of a canal boat when it was still miles from the locks. The children knew the different kinds of boats, including the pay boat and the carpenter boat. Some would swim out and steal watermelons from the passing vessels.

School children who attended Griggstown’s one-room schoolhouse on Canal Road used to listen for the approach of a boat. Then they would rush to the canal bank and wave to the people on board as the boat passed by.

Terhune said it was common for families who lived along the canal to sit in chairs on the bank in the summertime and watch the boats go by. Swimming in the canal’s fresh water was very relaxing. Farmers’ sons would go to the canal for a cool refreshing dip or a Saturday night bath. No need for swimwear. If a canal boat should happen by, the swimmers would stay in the water until it passed.

Most of the water was drained from the canal in the wintertime. A large net was dragged through the canal to remove larger fish. Some were put in neighboring brooks or used to stock fishing areas. The canal banks were repaired at this time. The water remaining in the canal would freeze and provide local residents with a place to ice skate. Ice was cut from the canal and the river and stored in ice houses for use the following summer.

Mary Rightmire sledding on the canal at Griggstown (from Images of America: The Delaware & Raritan Canal)

Mary Rightmire sledding on the canal at Griggstown (from Images of America: The Delaware & Raritan Canal)


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