Union Canal Tunnel Park
The Union Canal & Tunnel
Location: 25th Street and Union Canal Drive, Lebanon.
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 in 1762 and 1770.
First chartered as the Schuylkill and Susquehanna Canal Company, 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.
Reorganized in 1811 as the Union Canal Company of Pennsylvania, 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. The cost was in excess of six million dollars.
The 102 locks of the Canal were built 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'.
Dug though 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 though 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. (Click on photos to see larger versions.)
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.
The first boat to pass through the tunnel was the Alpha of Tulpehocken on June 12, 1827. Boats were poled thought the tunnel against the ceiling while mules were led over the top of the ridge.
In April 1950, the Lebanon County Historical Society purchased the Union Canal Tunnel. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 1, 1974.
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.
On April 19, 1994, the tunnel was designated a National Historic Landmark by the Secretary of the Interior.
Many exciting things have happened since our eighth annual Union Canal Days. We have been hoping and planning for the time when we can begin the restoration of the north portal of the Union Canal Tunnel and the removal of a great pile of stone which blocks the exit from the tunnel. These stone are from the deteriorated walls which were on the outside tunnel.
We have written five grants for funding for the restoration of the north portal of the tunnel. One hundred thousand dollars was awarded last fall to the County Commissioners by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources for this project. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission has granted Seventy five thousand dollars to the Lebanon County Historical Society for the brick and mortar restoration at the mouth of the tunnel.
Our consultant, Carol Hickey of Kauffman Hickey Architects of Lancaster, tells us all is in order to begin the work. The permits have been received, the archeological survey has been completed and the bid for the work has been awarded to Kreider Construction Company of Manheim.
With Ruffles and Flourishes from the March Masters Bank, the ground breaking ceremony took place in the afternoon on Sunday, May 3, 1998. With the assistance of Honey, the mule and her owner Jerry Varner, an early ground scoop was used to move some soil to make room for the stone which was pulled up from the canal by pulley and rope.
And now we are in readiness to begin the project. We are expecting the work to begin on or about the 18th of May. The first phase will be the dewatering of the canal, the building of a temporary road on the canal bed so that equipment can be brought in to remove the large piles of stone. The project will continue though out the summer. Please come and watch the progress of this exciting restoration. Volunteers will be needed to sort stone, look for artifacts and assist with other jobs. If you have an interest in this, please call 273-4115 or 273-4103.
Lois H. Meily, President
Union Canal of Pennsylvania
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Click here to read more about the Union Canal, courtesy of the Lebanon County Historical Society http://www.lebanonhistory.org/text/tunnel.html
Click here for the canal homepage http://pa-canal-society.org/unioncanaltunnel14.asp