People of the Old Morris Canal: Reverend Francis Williston
By Richard Mabey Jr.
From about 1995 till about 2004, I wrote a series of articles on the history of the old Morris Canal of Northern New Jersey. One of the most fascinating people that I stumbled upon, in my research of the old Morris Canal was Reverend Francis Williston.
Today, I was thinking a lot about Reverend Williston’s church. For the walls of his church were God’s oak, elm and maple trees. The floor of his church was the clay ground of the old towpath of the Morris Canal. The ceiling of his church was the blue sky, enhanced in beauty by the golden sun and the silver of the clouds.
I don’t know how it was that he made a living. That is to say, how it is that he got paid for preaching. I have this very strong feeling that he was dirt poor, yet considered himself wealthy in being blessed to do the good Lord’s work. Reverend Williston served as the Minister for the workers and travelers of the Morris Canal from 1897 till the canal ceased operation in 1924.
Reverend Williston would often walk the canal and recite Bible verses and talk with the canal mule drivers as they walked along the dust and weeds and rock and stone of the old towpath. His favorite book of the Bible, to share with the workers and travelers of the old canal, was the Book of Acts. He often held church services on canal boats on Sunday mornings.
My grandfather, Watson Mabey, served as the Chief Engineer of Incline Plane Ten East for many years. Today, I began thinking about that. Had Grandpa ever met Reverend Williston? Had he ever heard one of his sermons on a Sunday morning? The Plane House for Incline Plane Ten East was located on a hill at the Lincoln Park and Towaco borders along the old Morris Canal. It’s very possible that Reverend Williston may have given a sermon on a Sunday morning on that very hill, by the Incline House that served as Grandpa’s office.
Reverend Williston was also a writer. He wrote a book entitled, “The Balance.” Reverend Williston gave hundreds of his books away to people that he met along the old Morris Canal. Francis Williston worked untiring in his quest to teach people about the good Lord. When the sun would set, the good pastor would often read the Bible to a Night Watchman, who was guarding an incline plane building or a canal lock. Reverend Williston often shared personal stories of how men and women turned their lives around to focus on the good Lord’s loving guidance.
Reverend Williston did not confide his ministerial outreach to just the people of the Morris Canal. In 1924, when the Morris Canal closed down, Pastor Williston began preaching along the banks of the canals of Pennsylvania. From Mauch Chunk to Bristol, Pennsylvania, Pastor Williston shared the good news of the Bible with the men and women of the Lehigh Canal and Delaware Canal.
Pastor Williston retired from the ministry in 1932. He went Home to be with the Lord in 1941. He brought forth rays of hope, faith and inspiration to hundreds of men and women who were associated with the canals of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. A truly great man, for whom little is written about.
There is something almost a bit sad about the lack of notoriety of Reverend Francis Williston. For some strange reason, the history of the Morris Canal has been swept under the carpet and forgotten. I went through public schools in two of the towns that the Morris Canal traversed. All of my grammar school education was in the town of Lincoln Park. My four years of high school education was in the town of Boonton.
Sadly, not one single word was ever spoken about the Morris Canal in all of my many history classes. Not one word was ever printed in my old history books about the Morris Canal. Truly, the history of the Morris Canal is rich with heroes, colorful characters and people who made tremendous sacrifices in their day-to-day occupations along this canal. It’s always made me wondered, why was it totally ignored by the public school system.
Peace and harmony,