The Last Bridge Tender

by Betty Scott
Dedicated to Frank Fekete, who gave me so much information during my research, taking me to see where the  family lived in Griggstown, explaining the workings of the canal, and sharing family anecdotes.

                They are all gone now, as is the reason for their existence, but between 1834 and 1932 there was a unique task performed by a unique group of men in New Jersey on a unique method of transportation and commerce that belted our state. The task was tending the swing bridges along the Delaware and Raritan Canal.

The success of the Erie Canal, completed in 1825, provided the impetus for the system of inland waterways that, by 1840, totaled more than 4,000 miles. The Erie Canal had one problem, however; the bridges that carried roads across the waterway were stationary. This meant that passengers on the upper decks of packet boats had to either lie flat or hang from the side of the roof as the boats passed under the bridges. The Morris Canal had similar bridges. Begun in 1825 and opened in 1831, it crossed the highlands of New Jersey from Phillipsburg to Newark, and later was extended to Jersey City. This canal, like the Erie, was built with stationary bridges, serving to limit the height of boats that could utilize this engineering marvel. Experience being the best teacher, the designers of the Delaware-Raritan Canal, opened in 1834, solved that problem by using swing bridges. As boat traffic approached, the bridges were pushed open to allow vessels to pass.

This led to new professions. Men were hired to operate both the locks and the bridges, and homes were built to house them. The home occupied by the bridge tender at Blackwells Mills has been restored and is now operated by the Blackwells Mills Canal Association.

The last resident bridge tender at Blackwells Mills was Sandor Fekete. We will explore the life of this extraordinary man as seen through the eyes of those who knew him best.

As is true with most of us, different pictures of a person emerge as we learn of him from friends and family. Physically, he was barely five feet tall, but with a strength and stamina that belied his size. His granddaughter Theresa remembers him as benevolent and loving, his daughter-in law as hard working, living in the old way, disdaining modern amenities. His neighbor, Biff Heins, paints much the same picture. His son, Frank, who provided many details of his home life and some of his work experiences, gives us an insight into his personality. And all who knew him agree that he was a remarkable man indeed.

The Blackwells Mills Canal House, where he lived for more than forty years, still sits beside the canal. It looks much as it did when it was home to Sandor and his family, the addition of electricity and modern plumbing and the restoration of its front room fireplace not withstanding. Still to be seen in the home’s kitchen is the pump that was used to pump water into the sink and the coal stove with its built-in tank that provided hot water.

As you look into the front parlor you can imagine Mr. Fekete sitting, as he so often did, in his chair in front of the side door (kept locked because it was never used) beside the potbellied stove. With pipe in mouth and Bible in hand, he read by the light of a kerosene lamp. And if you try, you can almost smell the odor of the tobacco curing in a room upstairs, mixed with that of the kerosene lamps that provided the only light in the house.

The garden across the street is representative of the garden maintained by Mr. Fekete. As you inspect the grounds and garden, you might find some of the horseradish that was planted by the workboat crews along the canal. It was customary to plant horseradish, onions, and other seasonings that would be accessible to the workboat cooks as they passed.

The little building in the garden replaced the original bridgetender’s shack, which was moved, attached to the rear of the house, and used for storage. And don’t forget to glance at the “necessary” that was Sandor’s sanitary facility! He eventually had to modify it by changing the seat to include a smaller hole when the grandchildren came along.

Sandor’s story begins in Europe. Representatives of canal and railroad companies canvassed the European countryside in search of laborers. They found Sandor on an estate in Hungary where his family worked as woodcutters. Although living on the estate of a wealthy landowner, Sandor described his own home as a mud hut with a thatched roof and dirt floor. (Frank Fekete tells us that, while the majority of the felled trees were the property of the Lord of the Manor, the woodcutters were allowed to keep for their own use the smaller branches and limbs that they stripped from the trees.) The representatives of the railroad lured Sandor to America with a promise of gainful employment. And so, in 1906, at the age of 27, Sandor left his 25-year-old wife Theresa and two small children in Hungary and arrived in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Within a few years his life underwent more major changes, in both in his home and working conditions.

The change in his home environment came in a little over a year, his having saved enough money to send for his wife and establish a home.  She joined him here in 1907, but it would be fifteen years before the couple would be reunited with their two oldest children.

Immediately upon his arrival in America, Sandor went to work on the canal. His first job was that of a laborer, assigned to the task of laying brick and breaking up rocks that were too large to be moved. Before long, his boss, who he described to his granddaughter Theresa as a very big, very strong, very loud Irishman, being pleased with his work, recommended Sandor for the job of supervisor on the work boat, Relief.  These boats traveled the length of the canal inspecting the waterway and performing necessary repairs.  Sandor was soon promoted to foreman of the entire twenty-eight-man work crew. But even though the work wasn’t as arduous as what he had been doing, he wasn’t happy because, being obligated to live on the boat, he had very little time to spend with his growing family. Annie, born in 1909, was the first child born in America. Three more girls and two boys were yet to come.  While he lived on the boat, his wife and children occupied an apartment on Conduct Street in New Brunswick. Here she and the children no doubt enjoyed looking out over the river and canal, probably watching for her husband to pass by as he went about his duties.

In 1916, perhaps by request, because he was now a family man and the father of young children, Sandor was transferred from the work boat to a new position in Griggstown. He became the locktender.

Griggstown, a short distance along the canal to the south of the Blackwell’s Mills Canal House, was home to the muletenders’ barracks, a swing bridge adjacent to the barracks, and a canal lock, which was located about 1/2 mile upstream of the barracks and bridge. Locktending, when Sandor was hired for the position, was a twenty-four-hour-a-day job, shared by Sandor and a man name Mr. Slover. The two alternated twelve-hour shifts, two weeks on days, and two weeks on nights.

Lock tending was an art, an operation that had to be done with precision.  The approach of vessels could be detected by the rise in the depth of the water, due to the release of the water from the lock further up the canal.  The boats were guided along a wharf built along the canal at the lock to keep them from hitting the banks. When the boat was positioned, the drop gate would be lowered and the wickets opened slightly, bringing the vessel into the lock. The speed at which the water flowed into the lock had to be carefully controlled to prevent the boat from hitting the gates.  When the water was at the correct level, the gates would be opened and the boat pushed out with a great whoosh, making way for the next one. The mules were unhitched during the passage of the boats through the locks.

The first of the three canal houses in which the Fekete family lived was next to the Griggstown lock. The canal company built homes for the people who tended the locks and swing bridges. While the houses had been built with nearly identical interiors, their exteriors differed in that some were stone, others clapboard.  Initially they had been built with cooking fireplaces that were walled up in later years. The Feketes discovered this quite by accident.  One evening as the family sat to dinner in the kitchen of the Griggstown locktender’s house, they smelled smoke. A chimney fire was discovered.  In order to put it out, Sandor broke through the wall, revealing the fireplace. No significant damage was done by the fire, but Mrs. Fekete soon began to complain about the draft that the opening had created, so Sandor replaced the wall.

The house occupied a little more than an acre, large enough to allow the family to keep a cow and raise chickens and a few pigs to supplement Sandor’s income and provide for his growing family.  This was where he planted the first of the beautiful gardens, in which he grew many different vegetables and flowers.  And this is where his children grew up in an atmosphere that those of us today might find hard to imagine; a virtual perpetual summer camp, fishing, swimming, and camping along the banks of the canal.

Now the father of eight children, Sandor worked hard to provide for his family, and took advantage of every opportunity for gain. The boats passing along the canal moved slowly, allowing plenty of opportunity for conversation between the men on shore and those aboard the vessels.  One day, Sandor got into a conversation with a boatman who was towing a barge carrying some very large pigs to market. The conversation became a challenge when the boatman, who doubted the comparatively diminutive Sandor’s ability to handle the pigs, told him if he could pick up one of the weighty animals and put it on the canal bank, he could keep it. Sandor did it. The boatman became very upset at this, saying the pigs weren’t his and that he would have to pay for it if Sandor kept it.  So, having proved his point, Sandor returned the animal.

Working from “can see to can’t see” as was the custom in the old world and one that Sandor maintained all his life, left little time for recreation. The Fekete family did, however, enjoy music, and both Sandor Sr. and Sandor Jr. played the harmonica.  Their musical entertainments were enhanced for a time when they were given a pump organ that Sandor learned to play by ear. When the family moved to their second Griggs town house, however, the organ was left behind; the bellows no longer worked, rendering it inoperable.

There was plenty of work to fill the hours of the day, with the operation of the bridge and the small farm. Yet Sandor, a compulsive workman, constantly looked for additional chores.
So, perhaps because he had developed an aversion to large rocks early in his American career, he decided that a huge boulder near the house, even though it wasn’t causing any problems, was an annoyance and should be disposed of. To accomplish this, he dug a huge hole next to the obstruction, pushed it into the hole, and buried it.