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Union Canal Tunnel - East Portal - Boat Ride

The Lebanon County Historical Society owns, operates and maintains The Union Canal Tunnel, the oldest existing tunnel in the United States, for the canal linking the Schuylkill River at Reading, PA and the Susquehanna River at Harrisburg, PA.

The Union Canal Tunnel Park includes picnic tables and has no admission fee.  Located at 25th & Union Canal Drive, Lebanon, PA. (25th Street behind the Lebanon Valley Mall off U.S. Route 422 OR Tunnel Hill Road off PA Route 72 north).





Union Canal Tunnel - East Portal Restored Proposed by William Penn in 1690 to tap the agricultural wealth of the Commonwealth and give access to a second settlement on the Susquehanna River, the Canal was the first ever surveyed in the United States. This was done by David Rittenhouse and William Smith in 1762 and 1770.

First chartered as the Schuylkill and Susquehanna Canal Co., work was begun in 1792 under the direction of William Weston, an English engineer. Several miles of the Canal were dug and 5 locks were built between Myerstown and Lebanon before financial difficulties caused the work to cease. It was this area that President George Washington visited in 1793.

The State Legislature granted permission to raise $400,000 by lottery in 1795. In two decades and fifty drawings, $33 million was awarded in prize money, but only $270,000 reached the coffers of the Canal Company. This was the largest canal lottery in the nation's history.

Reorganized in 1811 as the Union Canal Company of Pennsylvania with Samuel Mifflin as President, work began in 1821 and the Canal was completed for the opening in 1828. A Branch canal was finished in 1832 reaching from the Water Works north to Pine Grove to tap the coal fields and supply much needed water for the Summit Level. The Canal required an elaborate pumping system to keep the Summit Level from going dry. Canvass White, of Erie Canal fame, was the chief engineer with Simeon Guilford as his assistant. The cost was in excess of six million dollars.

The 102 locks of the Canal were built too small (8 1~2' x 75') and could not accommodate the larger boats from the Pennsylvania Canal and the Schuylkill Canal. Enlargement took place in the 1850's, increasing lock size to 17' x 90'. A flood in June of 1862 devastated the Canal from Pine Grove to Middletown. Costly repairs, continual water problems and the completion of the Lebanon Valley Railroad in 1857 from Reading to Harrisburg reduced the revenues and caused the closing of the Union Canal in 1885. (Plaque erected in 1988 by the Lebanon County Historical Society.)


Union Canal Tunnel - West Portal In 1997UNION CANAL

Designated a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1970, this tunnel is the oldest existing transportation tunnel in the United States. At the time of its construction, it was considered a work almost unknown in this country.

Dug through the ridge dividing the waters of the Quittapahilla Creek and Clark's Run, the tunnel was originally 729 feet long. Drilling was done by hand and blasting with gunpowder through argillaceous slate rock with veins of hard flinty limestone 80 feet below the summit of the ridge. Progress of the work was 5 yards lineal per week.

Work began May 1825 and was completed in June 1827, at a total cost of $30,404.29. The tunnel's length was reduced to 600 feet during the canal enlargement in 1858 at a cost of $8,280.00.   Simeon Guilford was the engineer in charge, with John B. Ives as contractor.

The first boat to pass through the tunnel was the Alpha of Tulpehocken on June 12, 1827. Boats were poled through the tunnel against the ceiling, while mules were led over the top of the ridge.

Union Canal Tunnel - East Portal In 1975On December 29, 1933, upon request of the Lebanon County Historical Society, the Eastern Real Estate Company, successor in title to the Union Canal Company, granted the Lebanon County Historical Society the right to enter upon the property and take steps to preserve the engineering monument.

In the early 1930's, the Civil Works Administration (CWA) worked on restoring the Tunnel and the stone marker was dedicated. (The boulder was brought by a sled with horses from the South Mountains near Colebrook.)

In April 1950, the Lebanon County Historical Society purchased the Union Canal Tunnel, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 1, 1974.

Throughout the years, many volunteers have donated their services at the Tunnel, together with county donated manpower, to maintain and prepare it for a recreational site for the public.

The Union Canal Tunnel Park was dedicated by the Lebanon County Historical Society on October 9, 1988.  The Union Canal Tunnel was designated a National Historic Landmark by the Secretary of the Interior on April 19, 1994.


See also:  Union Canal at Swatara Creek Park