Before the advent of electricity, the biggest source of power was water power from rivers and streams. Almost all had gristmills located on them. However, manufacturing needed a more powerful source. In 1791, the Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures, created by Alexander Hamilton, looked for a place with enough power for a manufacturing hub for the nascent American nation. The society looked at this spot on the Raritan River before deciding on the Great Falls of the Paterson River.
In 1840, the New Jersey Legislature chartered the Somerville Water Power Company to build a “raceway” to help power machines and businesses along the Raritan River. The company did just that, building the Raritan Water Power Canal. The company bought land and leased it to businesses. However, debt from building the raceway weighed on the company and it went bankrupt in 1860.
In 1861, the company was reorganized into the Raritan Water Power Company and it continued to sell land along the river for manufacturing. By 1863, there were seven businesses including a paint shop, gristmill, a foundry, and a machine shop all using water power from the “raceway”. Also powered by the raceway and using the water from the canal was the Somerville Water Company.
With the arrival of electric power, the need for water power diminished. The Raritan Water Power Company was disbanded, and the mills along the raceway slowly disappeared. The canal is now part of Duke Island Park which is in between the Raritan Water Power Canal and the Raritan River. There is a trail along the raceway and through the park giving beautiful views of the water.
At the eastern edge of the canal is a statue of John Basilone, a local Raritan resident who fought in WWII at the Battle of Guadalcanal and died during the battle of Iwo Jima. Basilone was awarded several medals for his bravery and for going above and beyond the call of duty.