Sign dedication honors African-American Morris Canal Boat Captain James Campbell
By Jocelynn Thomas, NJ.com
The Morris Canal Committee, in conjunction with The Campbell Cultural Heritage House Inc., held a kiosk and sign dedication ceremony commemorating the life of Morris Canal Boat Captain James Campbell, on Oct. 17 at Warren County Community College.
Born in 1856, James Elliot Campbell, or “Poppa” as his family called him, became one of only a small percentage of African-American boat captains on the Morris Canal at the age of 15, following in the footsteps of previous family members, also Boatmen. In 1889, Campbell purchased his home for $167.98, serving as the family residence throughout his career of 40 plus years. Adjacent to the home was a large barn with a haymow where mules were kept readily available for borrowing or short periods of rest. Remains of this early canal community can still be seen on the west end of North Lincoln Avenue in Washington, in close proximity to Mt. Pisgah AME Church, once the place of worship for Campbell and his family, and continues as such today for surviving relatives. His home stands as a symbol of his legacy as a duty-bound family man, provider and citizen, his undaunted spirit, perseverance and strong work ethic.
Operating from 1831 to 1924, the Morris Canal was considered engineering genius of its time. Its original purpose was for transporting coal from the anthracite mines in Pennsylvania to New Jersey, where it was used to fuel the iron industry. Later, coal was transferred and shipped to New York City markets for heating, and local transport expanded to include limestone, lumber, sand, whiskey and various agricultural products.
The Morris Canal was originally 90 miles long, covering Phillipsburg to Newark, and in 1836 was extended to Jersey City for a grand total of 102 miles. Eventually, implementation of the railroads surpassed the canal’s efficiency as a shipping route, and in 1924 was formally abandoned. Today, the canal’s history is preserved through the efforts of local historical societies, the Canal Society of New Jersey, municipalities and passionate individuals.
Not exactly a glamorous lifestyle, a typical Canal Boat Captain and his family lived on the boat in a six by nine-foot cabin with a minimum of conveniences; perhaps a coal stove, folding table, bunks for sleeping and laundry hung outside to dry on ropes attached to deck poles.
Patricia Groves-Benton, great-great granddaughter of James Campbell, is the backbone and President of The Campbell Cultural Heritage House, Inc., a non-profit corporation dedicated to preserving a family landmark symbolic of the African American presence on the Morris Canal. Says Groves-Benton: “We are stepping back to look ahead.”
At the dedication ceremony, Groves-Benton read historical accounts of boatmen of the day saying “they were a good kind.” Stories of the collaboration between the men illustrate necessary qualities of adaptability and a willingness to help one another, as in the case of needing to borrow a mule (their primary fuel source) or a place to rest or stay. Boatmen were paid by the trip, so a day lost meant late delivery and a delayed pay. The captain stood at the tiller and guided the boat down the canal, while his onshore hand typically drove the mules. Canal boats required steering to prevent them from hitting the bank as the mules pulled them along. Depending upon whether the boats were loaded or unloaded, mules pulled at a speed or 3-4 miles per hour. A one-way trip took five days to traverse the state, with no travel on Sundays, which were always designated as a day of rest and worship. The first boats could haul a maximum capacity of 10 tons of cargo and, by 1860, were improved and redesigned to carry upwards of 70 tons.
Said attendee Rosemary Adams, Treasurer of the Washington Historical Society: “We as a historical society back everything you are doing and admire the family’s efforts.”
Also present and receiving special honor at the dedication ceremony was Emma Groves Campbell, 94, the only surviving granddaughter of James Campbell.
Representing the Warren County Morris Canal Committee was David Detrick, who presented the historic sign to be installed in front of the Campbell House once restoration is completed. The house will be added as the newest stop on the bus tour across Warren County, which takes place twice a year and highlights notable preserved Morris Canal landmarks. Detrick said, “The canal certainly was a family activity,” and so it seems fitting that today, the community and family are working together to honor and preserve this rich history.
Currently, the Campbell home stands dilapidated and in need of much work and contributions.
The goal of The Campbell Cultural Heritage House Inc. is to engage the community’s involvement in this restoration project. Tax-deductable donations can be sent to: The Campbell Cultural Heritage House Inc., P.O. Box 397, Washington, NJ 07882.
For more information, contact Carol McNeil at 908-689-1638.