The history of Pennsylvania's Union Canal is one of half measures and missed opportunities. However, these very qualities are what makes it notable in the history of canal construction in the United States.
Pennsylvania founder William Penn is given credit for first proposing the construction of a canal between the Susquehanna River and Schuylkill River in 1690. Seventy years later, surveyors David Rittenhouse and William Smith began work to find a suitable route for the canal. They finished the task in 1770, eight years after they started. This made the canal the first to be surveyed in the Americas.
First chartered as the Schuylkill and Susquehanna Canal Company, construction started in 1792. Under the direction of English engineer and canal expert William Weston, several miles of the canal were dug and five locks were built between the towns of Myerstown and Lebanon before a lack of money halted the work.
If at first you don't succeed
The canal company was reorganized in 1811 as the Union Canal Company of Pennsylvania and work began again a decade later. In 1826, a 729-foot long tunnel was built to allow the canal to pass through a ridge dividing the waters of the Quittapahilla Creek and Clark's Run and it was the second such tunnel to be built in America. The canal opened in 1828, with a branch canal completed in 1832 to reach the coal mines near Pine Grove.
The completed canal was 80 miles long and had 102 locks to deal with the elevation changes along its route. It stretched from the Susquehanna River at Middletown east along the Swatara Creek to Lebanon and from there along the Tulpehocken Creek to the Schuylkill River at Reading.
The canalboats hauled passengers and cargo. Agricultural products were transported east to Philadelphia and markets abroad, and manufactured goods back to Pennsylvania's rural inland area. Each boat was pulled by a team of two mules who walked along a 'towpath'.
The mules pulled the boats from 4am to 11pm and they ate out of feedbags strapped to their heads. Grains, falling from their mouths, seeded much of the path with wild oats which are still visible today. Stations along the way provided fresh teams to maintain the 2-3 mile per hour pace of the journey.
While the boats and the mule teams were the property of the Union Canal Company, boat captains and their families were expected to live on the boats during the hauling season - boats did not operate in the winter because of the danger ice posed.
Beginning of the end
The canal operated for 30-some years without major difficulties. In the 1850s, all of the locks were enlarged to nearly two and a half times their original size to accomodate the larger boats of the Pennsylvania Canal. This cost, flooding and the completion of a railroad between Reading and Harrisburg reduced revenues for the canal company. It closed permanently in 1885.
The Union Canal Today
Though the Union Canal ceased operation more than 120 years ago, its legacy remains in southcentral Pennsylvania in a number of ways:
- Middletown-Hummelstown Railroad - This small railroad runs between the towns of Middletown and Hummelstown with much of the railbed using the towpath of the Union Canal.
- Union Canal House - Located just outside of Hershey, this restaurant and bed and breakfast has been an inn since the 1700s. It was a popular stopover for passengers along the canal before reaching Middletown.
- Union Canal Tunnel - Designated a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1970 and a National Historic Landmark in 1994, the canal's tunnel is the oldest existing transportation tunnel in the United States. The tunnel still exists as the centerpiece of a local park that is owned by the Lebanon County Historical Society.