The D&R Canal at Lower Ferry Road (looking south), with the Bel Del tracks beside it, c. 1900. (Photo courtesy of the Trenton Public Library.)

We’ve spent a few months lingering in Greensburg/Wilburtha, recalling what was once an active location. However, there’s one important aspect of the area that is truly historic (and on the National Register of Historic Places), and still very much used: the path along the feeder canal.

Call it what you will: the canal tow-path, which the mules and mule-drivers (often the barge captain’s children) walked along to pull the barges loaded with freight; or the railroad bed, which after it was laid with track in the mid 1800s was used by the Belvidere and Delaware Railroad Company to carry freight to market; or the jogging and biking trail comprising the D&R Canal Park Trail System, which became popular once the railroad tracks were removed in the 1980s. It remains a much-used recreational trail.

Constructed between 1830 and 1834, the Delaware and Raritan Canal and its feeder canal became a part of a larger system of canals and waterways along the East Coast which provided movement of goods (primarily coal) to fuel the industrial revolution. The 44-mile-long main canal connected the Delaware River at Bordentown to the Raritan River at New Brunswick. The feeder canal ran along the Delaware, 22 miles from Raven Rock (just north of Stockton) to Trenton, and was intended to supply water for the main canal—but also became a busy water route itself. Interestingly, the D&R Canal is one a few remaining canals from that vast system still essentially intact.

Unfortunately for the canal investors, railroads were soon to gain favor for efficient shipping of goods. The need to ship iron and coal from Pennsylvania (and other materials) to city markets led to the creation of the Belvidere and Delaware Railroad Company, which built a railroad parallel to the canal. The first phase, completed in 1850, ran trains between Trenton to Lambertville, where the Lambertville Station (now a restaurant) was the actual station. Eventually the track ran north to Phillipsburg and Belvidere, with connections to points east to Flemington, and points west at the termini at Trenton and Belvidere. By the end of the 19th century, the “Bel-Del” provided much of the transport of coal, iron ore, produce, lumber, merchandise and more along the west coast of New Jersey, eventually connecting to railroads heading north to New York and west to Philadelphia. Use of the D&R Canal, and canals in general, fell into decline.

The Bel-Del not only carried freight; it also provided passenger service, with eight stations between Trenton and Lambertville, including Greensburg (renamed Wilburtha in 1883). A small community emerged at that place, consisting of at various times a railroad station and post office, DeFeo’s General Store, a tavern/hotel, an office for one of the local quarries, a fish cabin, and not far away, an ice cream parlor, the Dog House Restaurant, and a gas station, as well as a dozen or so homes.

In its heyday, the Bel-Del was a busy railroad, with a schedule “you could set your watch to.” Purchased by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, it remained a vital transportation link through the Second World War. But as coal became less desirable than fuel, and as trucks and cars took a lead role in transporting goods and people, the railroad fell into decline. Through mergers and bankruptcies, the Bel-Del railroad continued until Conrail eliminated unprofitable lines. The last train ran from Phillipsburg to Trenton in the fall of 1978. By 1981, the section of track from Trenton to Frenchtown was removed, creating the very popular canal park trail. Sections north, including the branch to Flemington, remain active to this day, and constitute the rails for the Black River and Western Railroad, which runs scenic train excursions pulled by steam engines along the old line.

What do you think the next reincarnation of this pathway will be 50 years from now?