The Last Bridge Tender

The Last Griggstown Canal 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.

1922 was an eventful year for the Feketes. Sandor became a naturalized citizen on April 13, and, later that year Theresa and Sandor were finally reunited with their two older children, Mary, then 19, and Sandor Jr., 16. How excited their parents must have been to be together with the children they had last seen when Sandor Jr. was an infant and Mary a toddler. Five more children had been born to the couple over the years, with the sixth yet to come. The family was to number ten.

Sandor was never one to pass up an opportunity to put his time to good use and supplement his income. This was particularly true during the late 1920s when the stock market crashed. Frank, now in his early teens, had been working as a groundskeeper for the Joseph Sterling family, who owned a seven-acre tract a short distance down the road from the locks. Mr. Sterling was a well-to-do lawyer with offices in New York. Relatively unaffected by the financial chaos, the Sterlings were able to retain their large property, and even make improvements on it. Sandor, who had learned stonework during his years on the canal workboat, was contracted to build a wall along the property. Frank collected and transported the stones from the surrounding hills, and his father did the construction. That wall, along with the two pillars that mark the beginning of the driveway, are on the property today.

The major depression that began in the late 1920s changed the lives of many, Sandor and his family among them. In 1928, in an effort to down-size expenses relative to the operation of the canal, the company determined that the Griggstown lock and swing bridge were close enough together so that one man could take care of both of them. As a result, Sandor became both the lock and bridge tender. They moved into the small house that still sits next to the bridge near the bank of the canal, across from the Mule Tenders Barracks.

In part, the lease for the Griggstown house reads, “This Agreement, made the second day of October, 192_ (sic) between the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, lessee of the works and property of the United New Jersey Railroad and Canal Company —-and Sandor Fekete, Bridge tender–,(description of property at drawbridge #19) –To hold the same until the lessee as tenant at will of this lessor at and for the rent or sum of One and 00/000 ($1.00) per year to begin in the First day of September, 1928, and to be paid annually in advance of the first day of September thereafter.” A very interesting typewritten sentence was added to the paragraph in the lease describing the obligations of the Lessee. It reads, “That the lessee shall and will not use gasoline stoves or use or keep gasoline in any form on the said premises (sic).” Since gasoline stoves were non-existent, it can only be assumed that because Sandor had a Model T Ford at the time, the railroad company anticipated the possibility of extra gasoline for use in his car being stored in or near the house.

In 1930 Sandor was transferred to Blackwells Mills as its bridge tender, and the family moved again. It was to be Sandor’s last move. Here, in the Blackwells Mills Canal House, he would live the remainder of his life, and it is here that we see his last years clearly through the eyes of his friends and family

Six people comprised Sandor’s family when they moved into the Blackwells Mills Canal House. By the time he was transferred to this location, some of his children had already left the nest. Four family members remained. Frank, his brother Sandor, and two of his sisters shared the home with their parents.

Life during the depression was hard, but Sandor supplemented his income here as well by raising vegetables and flowers in the weed-free garden for which he became locally famous.

With the advent of steam-powered vessels, a new form of traffic utilized the canal. Operators of pleasure boats used the waterway for recreational purposes. Commercial vessels moved all manner of goods across the state, including equipment for use in three wars. Seen passing down the canal were two sub chasers, an airplane and the Holland VI, the first successful United States submarine, built in Elizabethport in 1897.

Between about 1925 and 1932 there was still much activity on the canal. Nineteen twenty-nine was the peak year for pleasure boats, when almost a thousand private vessels enjoyed the quiet waters of the canal. During this period Sandor probably waited in the little shack that still sits on the canal bank, watching for approaching vessels that would necessitate the opening of the bridge.

A description of how the bridge operated is found in Franklin Township, Somerset County, N.J.- A History, by William B. Brahms. He explains: “When a bell rang, the gate on the west bank would be closed. Then, the tender would open the bridge by pushing a 10-foot pole and walking the bridge, which was balanced on three sets of 8-inch iron wheels. The wheels moved along a track on a turntable that swung the bridge to one side. Sometimes the bridge needed a good push to get it started. The bridge itself served as a railing on the east side of the canal to prevent horses or carts from falling into the water.” No doubt it was one of Sandor’s duties to see that the swing bridge mechanism was in good working order, so that the need for the “a good push” was kept to a minimum.

The little canalside shack has a historical significance of its own. It was once the railroad ticket office at Voorhees Station. Some years before Sandor’s arrival, it was brought to Blackwells Mills to replace the original bridgetender’s hut. During a period of renovation some years earlier, the original hut was moved across the street and attached to the main house to provide storage space. The new hut, its small size notwithstanding, it did contain some amenities, such as a pot-bellied stove and a comfortable chair. Sandor doubtless spent some quiet time here, enjoying the view from the bay windows that afforded him excellent visibility of the canal from both directions.

At the end of 1932, with the railroad becoming a cheaper and more efficient means of transporting freight, the canal was closed. Soon its bridges were permanently fixed, and the bridgetender was out of a job. Sandor began a new career with the railroad, where he remained until his retirement at age 60 in 1939. Because the canal company and the railroad were joint companies, he was given a notarized document that gave him the right to remain on the property as long as the taxes were paid and the property kept in good condition. For many years he had been paying rent in the princely amount of $1.00 per year to the railroad. This continued for the remainder of his life.

Life for the Feketes was proceeding at its normal pace until one morning in 1940 when an event occurred that devastated Sandor, and changed his life forever. As his wife rose and began to dress for the day, she suddenly collapsed and fell to the floor. Sandor ran across the street to the home of Hap Heins to call the doctor, asking him to come quickly, as he feared his wife was dead. Upon examination, Doctor Cooper, whom it seems was sadly lacking in bedside manner, commented, “Yep, she’s dead, all right. Dead as a doornail.” Apparently 59-year-old Theresa was the victim of a blood clot resulting from phlebitis. Shortly thereafter, Sandor found himself alone. Sandor Jr. (who had returned home following a divorce) remarried, and Margaret (who was the last to leave the nest and the first of his children to die), moved out. Perhaps he preferred it that way.

Sandor had grown up without any of the modern amenities and maintained the same simple lifestyle to the end of his days. Even though the previous residents had wired the house for electricity and used a generator, he refused to take advantage of the convenience, preferring to maintain the old ways. His sanitary facility remained the “necessary,” his brooms and fly swatters were hand made, and his vegetables were home preserved. He made wine from the grapes he grew. His one concession to modern conveniences was his Model T Ford.

Sandor went to bed at dusk and rose with the sun. Many of us require coffee or tea to start the day, but Sandor’s beverage of choice was a glass of his homemade wine; it contained extra sugar that increased its potency and was laced with black pepper. He lived off the land, trapping muskrats for their pelts, which he cured and sold, and other animals for their meat. He probed the swampy ground in search of turtles that were destined for the soup pot.

There were times, however, when these practices posed some dangers. His daughter-in-law told of an incident when he got stuck in mud almost up to his waist, but managed to extricate himself. Checking his traps could have cost him his life one winter when he fell into the canal near his grapevines. Somehow stuck, he was rescued some time later by Biff Heins. The grounds and wooded surroundings held dangers as well. Sandor’s son Frank said his father was once attacked and injured by a deer. He was found and driven home by passers-by. And his granddaughter, Theresa, described the scar that Sandor said came from the bite of a copperhead snake. (This may have been a slight exaggeration, however, since, while his son Frank remembers the snakebite, he saiditwasagartersnake.)

In any case, Sandor was extremely annoyed that the snake got away. His remarkable resilience became apparent again when he suffered an attack of appendicitis and passed out in the garden from the pain. He was taken to the hospital, but refused to stay. As soon as he felt better, he got dressed and walked all the way home, contending that if he was going to die, he wanted to do it at home. But that was not his time. He would go on and outlive his youngest child by three years. His daughter, Margaret, was killed in an auto accident in 1967.

Even in his later years, Sandor remained somewhat of a workaholic. His gardens were immaculate. When he wasn’t working there, he found other tasks, one of which is difficult for us, with our modern machines and mechanical tools, to conceive of. At the age of 50, he dug out, by hand, a large section of the hill beside the Heins home. This excavation was done to make room for the construction of the barn that still stands near the house, nestled against the hillside. Sandor used a pick and shovel to loosen the dirt, and then pushed it in a wheelbarrow across the gravel roadway, where he spread it over the swampy ground. This provided enough fill to support an art studio for Hap Heins. The barn still stands, as does the artist’s studio, built by Hap from the lumber in two dilapidated structures that were on the property when it was purchased. The studio is now used by Biff Heins, Hap’s equally talented and renowned son.

Sandor had a forceful personality and was quick to anger, especially in his younger years. Frank remembers an incident in which his father became upset with him and began chasing him around the house. Frank ran upstairs and out onto the roof, and began talking down through the chimney. He was very much amused when his Dad couldn’t figure out where the voice was coming from.

When the children married and the grandchildren arrived, the family used the Canal House as their personal playground. They enjoyed what they called “the swimming hole” by the culvert across from today’s park headquarters, and fished from the bridge.

The water was clean and clear, suitable for both swimming and fishing in the summer and skating in the winter. Sandor’s disposition had mellowed by then, but he was still possessive of his property and careful with his tools. He intimidated one grandson who was severely reprimanded for not cleaning and putting away the gardening tools.

With his family, Sandor remained something of an outside observer. He carefully supervised the children, but did not participate in their activities. But fishermen who frequented the canal and people who came to purchase his exceptional home grown vegetables found him friendly and pleasant. (Perhaps because he knew he wouldn’t have to put up with them for long.)

Once the children had moved away, Sandor’s only companion was his dog. There was always one at his heels. It is uncertain how many he had over the years, but he named each of them “Tootsie.” One dog, of whom Sandor was particularly fond, fell into the canal and drowned; Sandor never replaced him.

His life style and solitude may have given rise to a rumor that this weird old man had money secreted in the house. Anne Fekete, during her interview with Jim Moise in 1988, described how someone broke into the house, robbed Sandor, and left him bound and tied to a chair. Biff Heins found him in that condition the following day.

The proximity of the house to the canal, while convenient for the bridge tenders, also could lead to problems. Flooding was an ever-present concern, whether it was the basement crawl space, where Sandor kept at least one turtle ready to be prepared for consumption, or of the house itself. During the severe flooding resulting from Tropical Storm Doria, Sandor was, with extreme reluctance, removed from the house by boat. By the time the storm ended, the water had risen to the second step of the staircase leading to the second floor.

In 1970, the end of an era came with the death of Sandor Fekete, the last bridge tender, at the age of 92. He succumbed to mouth cancer, no doubt caused by the homegrown tobacco that he cured and smoked, and exacerbated by the pulling of his own tooth. Memories of him survive, as does his home, now carefully tended by the dedicated members of the Blackwells Mills Canal House Association and the Meadows Foundation.

Thanks to Betty Scott for sharing this story of the last bridge tender on the Delaware & Raritan Canal.  Thanks to Linda and Robert Barth and Susan Poremba for their fine editing.