Looking to pass through the oldest transportation tunnel in the United States? Better have a boat in tow or be ready to get wet.The Union Canal was originally proposed by William Penn in 1690 in order to access a second settlement on the Susquehanna River. Original surveying for the Canal was done in 1762 then again in 1770. In 1792, the Schuylkill and Susquehanna Canal Company began construction. Several miles were dug and 5 locks were built between the towns of Myerstown and Lebanon. Unfortunately a lack of money ceased the work.
Reorganizing in 1811 to form the Union Canal Company, work began again in 1821 and finally the Canal was opened in 1828. During the time of May 1825 and June 1827, men were hand drilling through the ridge and blasting gunpowder in order to build an engineering feat. At the time of the tunnel’s construction, it was considered unheard of in this country. Boats would be pulled through while the mules were led over the top of the ridge.In 1832 a branch of canal was finished reaching into Pine Grove, so the coal in that area could be easily transported.
During the 1850’s, the locks of the canal were enlarged to accommodate larger boats. In 1858 the tunnel which originally was 729 feet was shortened to 600 feet. Around this same time, transportation was seeing a transformation and the railroad was growing. In 1857 the Lebanon Valley Railroad was built and seriously reduced the canal’s revenue. To make matters worse, a flood in 1862 destroyed much of the canal. Costly repairs, water problems and the advancement of railroading forced the canal to close in 1885. In the early 1930’s, the Civil Works Administration began restoring the tunnel of the canal.
In 1950 the Lebanon County Historical Society purchased the tunnel. In 1974 it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Union Canal Tunnel Park was opened up in October of 1988.Instead of getting wet and swimming through the dark tunnel alone, you can contact the Historical Society and they’ll be happy to boat you through.