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Union Canal Tunnel Park - Lebanon, Pennsylvania

A canal linking Philadelphia with the Susquehanna River across southern Pennsylvania had been in the making for quite some time. This eventually gave birth to the Union Canal, which was built between Middletown, located along the Susquehanna River near Harrisburg, with Reading on the Schuylkill River, which winds its way to Philadelphia. During the canal's construction, several land features had to be dealt with, and in the case of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, it was more practical to build a tunnel through a hill than to build a series of locks. This gave birth to the Union Canal Tunnel.

The Union Canal Tunnel was a critical link connecting the eastern and western branches of the 82-mile Union Canal, which was built through the ridge dividing the Quittapahilla Creek and Clark's Run just northwest of the center city of Lebanon, Pennsylvania. It is the oldest existing tunnel in the United States, dug through 729 feet of slate rock which contained veins of limestone. Drilling for the tunnel was done by hand using picks and shovels, and blasting with gunpowder 80 feet below the summit of the ridge at a speed of five yards per week. Work on the tunnel began in May 1825 and was completed in June 1827, with a total cost of $30,404.29. The length of the tunnel had been reduced to 600 feet during the canal enlargement project in 1858 for $8,280.00. Simeon Guilford was the engineer in charge of construction and John B. Ives was the contractor for building the tunnel. On June 12, 1827, the "Alpha" of Tulpehocken (now Myerstown), Pennsylvania was the first boat to pass through the tunnel. Boats were pushed through the tunnel against the ceiling using poles, while the mules were led over the top of the ridge so they could meet the boats once again on the other side of the tunnel. The Union Canal Tunnel was in use until the Union Canal closed for business in 1884, no longer able to financially compete with railroads.

A canal was first proposed by William Penn in 1690 to tap into the agricultural diversity of Pennsylvania and to provide access to settlement along the Susquehanna River. As a result, the Union Canal was the first ever canal surveyed in the United States. This was done by David Rittenhouse and William Smith in 1762 and 1770, as consideration was given to constructing a waterway that would speed shipments between the Delaware and Susquehanna Rivers, and to the world beyond. In 1791, the Pennsylvania Assembly passed an act that authorized the formation of the Schuylkill and Susquehanna Canal Company, which was the first step in building a canal between both rivers. Construction work began the following year under the direction of an English engineer by the name of William Weston but was suspended in 1794 due to financial difficulties. When construction halted, several miles of the canal had been dug and five locks were built between Myerstown and Lebanon, so progress had been made. However, the Pennsylvania legislature deemed the construction of the canal to be of utmost importance and thus granted permission to raise $400,000 by lottery in 1795. Over two decades and fifty drawings, $33 million (worth about $800 million today in 2023) was awarded in prize money in the canal lottery, but only $270,000 (worth about $6,550,000 in 2023) reached the coffers of the Schuylkill and Susquehanna Canal Company. This was the largest canal lottery in the growing nation's history.

Things looked up for canal construction as the company was reorganized in 1811 as the Union Canal Company of Pennsylvania with Samuel Mifflin as its president. Work on the Union Canal began in 1821 and was completed for the opening in 1828. A branch of the canal was finished in 1830 going north to Pine Grove to tap the coal fields and supply much-needed water, as the canal required an elaborate pumping system to keep it from going dry. The 107 locks of the canal were built too small for larger boats to use, at a size of 8½ feet by 75 feet. Canal enlargement took place during the 1850s, which increased lock size to 17 feet by 90 feet. But floods, water issues, and completion of railroads reduced revenues and the canal was out of business by 1885.

After the Union Canal closed, the Union Canal Tunnel sat unused for some time, but steps were taken to preserve the engineering marvel that eventually led to the creation of the Union Canal Tunnel Park we enjoy today in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. During the 1930s, the Civil Works Administration (CWA) worked on restoring the tunnel, and in 1933, the Lebanon County Historical Society was granted permission to enter the property that the tunnel sat on. In 1950, the Lebanon County Historical Society completed the purchase of the tunnel and surrounding property. In 1970, the Union Canal Tunnel was designated a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. Additional land purchases were made over time, and further restorations were made around the tunnel portals. Today, there is a trail along the towpath on both sides of the tunnel, where you can casually stroll along a small section of the old Union Canal. Near the south tunnel portal, there is also an informational display that shows old photographs along with the history of the tunnel and the canal. I enjoyed my visit to the Union Canal Tunnel Park, and learning about this slice of history.

A remnant section of the Union Canal.

A trail along what was the old tow path. From the parking lot, the trail is no more than a quarter mile to the south portal of the tunnel.

The restored tunnel looks beautiful. This is a view of the south portal of the Union Canal Tunnel. I believe you can take a kayak through the tunnel today.

Historical plaques.

As close to the south portal of the tunnel as I was able to get that day.

Informational board describing the history of the canal.

Historical plaque.

The north side of the park has a few plaques that describe daily activities. history and impact of the Union Canal.

There is a trail that leads to the north portal of the Union Canal Tunnel as well.

I feel like the north portal of the tunnel is more secluded.

Gallivanting along the old tow path.

There is a small monument along Tunnel Hill Road above the tunnel.

Historical marker along Tunnel Hill Road.

How to Get There:

Sources and Links:
Lebanon County Historical Society - Union Canal Tunnel Park
American Society of Civil Engineers - Union Canal Tunnel
Lebanon County Historical Society - History of the Union Canal Company
UncoveringPA - Visiting the Union Canal Tunnel: The Oldest Transportation Tunnel in the United States

Crossposted to Quintessential Pennsylvania -


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