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The Union Canal, Lebanon County PA

Transcribed by Nancy Piper

The Union Canal was a towpath canal that existed in southeastern Pennsylvania in the United States during the 19th century. First proposed in 1690 to connect Philadelphia with the Susquehanna River, it ran approximately 75 mi (120 km) from Middletown on the Susquehanna below Harrisburg to Reading on the Schuylkill River. Although construction began in 1792 during the George Washington Administration, financial difficulties delayed its completion until 1828. Called the "Golden Link," it provided a critical early transportation route for the shipment of anthracite coal and lumber eastward to Philadelphia. Although closed in the 1880s, remnants of the canal remain, most notably the Union Canal Tunnel, a hand-built engineering marvel that is the oldest existing transportation tunnel in the United States. The tunnel is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. - wikipedia.com


Laying the Foundation for the Union Canal

Republican Compiler (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania)

May 19 1824

On the 1st inst., the foundation stone of the lock on the Union Canal of Pennsylvania, at the east end of the summit level, was laid by Mr. Prevost, manager, in the presence of a number of citizens. A salute of twenty-three discharges was fired on the occasion, and in the evening there was a public super, to which about seventy gentlemen sat down.


Republican Compiler (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania) April 13 1825

Union Canal

The bill authorizing the extension of the Union Canal eastward from the mouth of the Tulpenocken, so as to unite with the Schuylkill Canal, at or near Reading, has passed both branches of the Legislature, and received the signature of the Governor. It is understood that the company will thus be enabled at once to finish and put into operation the whole of the line east of Lebanon, comprising a distance of 35 miles and forming in connection with the Schuylkill works, a complete water communication from this city to that place - and that this most desirable object will probably be accomplished by the end of August next. The residue of the work, stretching on the one hand to the coal regions of the Swatara, and on the other to the Susquehanna at Middletown, will also be prosecuted with the utmost vigor during the present season. - Philad.


Republican Compiler (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania) June 1, 1825

Lebanon, May 17

Union Canal

We take pleasure in informing our readers that this magnificent work is now under contract from that part of the summit level now excavated to the Swatara creek, a distance of eight miles and will, during the present summer, be prosecuted with vigor. In addition to this, the feeder which extends from the canal to Union Forge, about six miles in length and which is intended to be navigable for boats, has also been contracted for and its excavation will be speedily commenced. It will doubtless be gratifying to the friends of internal improvement and particularly so to those who are immediately interested in this work, to learn that the prejudices which existed against the canal, while in its infancy, are now giving place to the most perfect confidence in its final completion and utility; and instead of a disposition to obstruct those employed in its prosecution, a willingness is manifested by those through whose lands it will pass to afford every facility and encouragement to them. - Republican


Republican Compiler (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania) July 20, 1825

Extract of a letter to the Editor of the Allegheny Democrat, dated Union Canal, June 7, 1825.

You will no doubt be gratified to know that the Union Canal, which has been for years the subject of so much ridicule, is now in a fair way of being completed; and as respects the utility of this magnificent work, it cannot be questioned, not is it even by those who once threw every impediment in its way. The eastern section, viz. from the Schuylkill to Lebanon, a distance of about 28 miles, is nearly all excavated, also the locks, 52 in number, will be entirely finished by the first of October next, so that we may expect to see boats passing from Lebanon via Reading to Philadelphia before next winter. The western section from Lebanon to Middletown about 28 or 30 miles will be all in active operation by the first of August. Twelve mines of this ection is under contract and rapidly progressing. The engineers are engaged in laying out the remainder of the canal line, which when commenced will afford employment to 1000 additional laboring hands. As respects the summit level of this canal, it will be seven miles long, about four miles longer than was contemplated by Mr. Weston, when the old canal was first laid out, or even by Mr. Baldwin the acting engineer in 1822. Near the west end of these seven miles the canal will pass through a tunnel of 290 yards long, where it will receive the feeder from the Swatara, about seven miles in length and which is also under contract to be completed by the first of April next.

This feeder is a work of great magnitude and comprises a twofold object as it will be navigable to near the coal mines north of Jonestown, and also supply the summit level with water which puts an end to all doubts (if ever there were any entertained) of a sufficient quantity of water for the summit level aforesaid.

It may not be improper to mention that extending the summit the change effected by it in leaving the limestone lane, along the Quittapahilla, and taking the canal through a gravel bottom by Kettle run to the Swatara, affords facilities to the completion of the work and will render it permanent when completed. It is also proper to state that this important discovery may justly be attributed to the genius and indefatigable exertions of the chief engineer, Mr. White and his assistant Mr. Guilford. It is to the latter gentleman that the company is indebted for the discovery of Hydraulic lime, now used as cement in building the locks and equal if not superior to the Roman cement which water cannot affect.


Republican Compiler (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania) September 21, 1825

Harrisburg, Sept. 12

Distressing Accident

It is with much regret that we have heard of an accident that occurred at the Union Canal on Wednesday last. Part of the tunnel, near Lebanon caved in on that day and covered eight of the laborers, four of whom were killed. Among the killed was Mr. Vaugnan, of this town. - Chronicle.


Republican Compiler (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania) January 4, 1826

A meeting was held at Middletown on the 19th of November at which resolutions were adopted to establish a transporting company, as it is expected the Union Canal will, as far as Lebanon, be finished this winter to transport all the produce or other articles of the Susquehanna from the harbor at the south of Swatara, which may be entrusted to their care, to Lebanon by land and from thence by the canal to Philadelphia, and in return, bring all the merchandize that may be required by merchants and others residing on said river, west of Middletown. The people of Maryland try and try in vain to keep shad from going up the river and it will be just as vain to try to keep arks, rafts and boats from going down.

By an official report it appears that the Union canal, as far as Lebanon, has cost $524,976 and the remainder from Lebanon to Middletown, will cost $550,000. The distance from the Swatara to the Schuylkill in a direct line is but 43 miles, but so circuitous is the location of the canal, that along the same the distance is 74 miles. It appears to us, that this canal cannot hold out very great inducement to a Susquehanna waterman, when he can run to the tide in as many hours, without paying toll, as it would take him days to creep 74 miles through this canal. It is really to be feared this is a more foolish expedient to arrest the Susquehanna trade, than the Falmouth turnpike. The turnpike, not being used, produced a fine crop of grass fit for hay or pasture, whereas the canal (would we were mistake) will never be of much use but to breed tadpoles and fevers. - York Gazette.


Republican Compiler (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania) April 12, 1826

Reading, April 1

Union Canal

About 20 miles of this work has been tried with admirable success. A boat with 32 passengers sailed several miles upon it. With the exception of the absorption incident to all new embankments, not a leak of consequence has occurred. In the month of May it is thought very probable that the whole line from the summit level to this place will be in full operation. - Jour.


Republican Compiler (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania) June 14, 1826

North Lebanon

Some of our enterprising citizens some time since, purchased about ninety acres of land on both sides of the canal, near a half mile north of this borough, and laid it out into town lots. They have already sold many. Mr. Barnett is now making a basin on the south of the canal; and a company from Philadelphia another on the north. - Lebanon Republican


Republican Compiler (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania December 7, 1826

From the Lebanon Republican

On Thursday last the Water was let into the Union Canal Feeder and the day following a boat which had been handsomely fitted up for the occasion loaded with passengers anxious to witness the novel and interesting object, descended to the junction of the Feeder and main Canal.

At 12 o'clock the boat being ready Mr. Livermore, the Engineer, M.D. Johnson and others interested in the work, together with some of the citizens of Jonestown, in the whole to the number of about 30, embarked, when the boat moved gracefully down the smooth surface of the Canal drawn by 4 horses, to each of which were attached bells, which with the music on board tended to enliven and give an air of joy and satisfaction to all on board. They proceeded rapidly to the termination of the feeder and at 5 P.M., returned, disembarked, and separated each to his own dwelling, well satisfied with the events of the day. As no interruption of consequence occurred to dispel the cheerful smile that played around the animated countenances that inhabited the little ark, they had quite an agreeable ride; and had not the unfavorableness of the weather prevented it would have been delightful. The exertions of Mr. Daniel Johnson were particularly conspicuous , and the lively zeal manifested by him and some others whose names I have the misfortune not to remember entitle them to the thanks and approbation of the party.

At the commencement some small leaks made their appearance, but by the prompt aid of the gentlemen just mentioned they were stopped without difficulty or delay and the whole line is now perfectly tight and in good order. I am extremely happy in adding that no serious accident happened from the commencement to the end of the Excursion.

By publishing the above you will gratify many and much oblige

Your friend - P.

November 20th, 1826.


Republican Compiler (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania April 11, 1827

Harrisburg, April 5

Union Canal

On Friday last, the 30th of March, the water was let into the western section of the Union Canal, at the water-works, from the dam at the mouth of Kettle-run and termination of the Swatara feeder. The water was lit in to the depth of three feet and reached Middletown, the western termination of the Union Canal, on the evening of Sunday, April 1. The canal bottom and banks were found unusually water tight - very few and those immaterial leaks occurring in the whole distance of 29 miles. We walked from the cave, near Hummelstown to Middletown, between four and five miles on the canal bank, and observed at a waste gate near Middletown, the only leak in the distance, and that one of no consequence. The water has since been taken out of the canal, in order to let the banks settle.

The water has also been let into the Union Canal on the eastern section, as will be seen by the following extract from a letter of the date of April 1.

"John Swalm of Womelsdorf is boating bricks from lock No. 2 to 25, for the lock houses. On last Friday afternoon, he left the level between locks 24 and 25, and came up to lock No. 2, passing through 23 locks in the short space of four hours, the distance is eleven miles and four chains.

"Mr. Swalm says, the average time of passing the lock is three and a half minutes."

We need not say that we rejoice at the success of this enterprise, so far; and we anticipate equal success with the whole line, when the water shall be let in, which, we are informed, will be in three or four weeks. - Chronicle.


Republican Compiler (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania May 2, 1827

Union Canal

On Saturday the 7th inst., the great wheel of 36 feet diameter, which has been erected by the Union canal company at the mouth of Clark's creek, for the purpose of raising the water out of the Swatara feeder into the summit, near Lebanon, was put in motion, and succeeded to the full extent of the most sanguine expectations of its projectors.

The head of water by which it is intended to propel the wheel, is 3 feet. On this first trial, however, the head was only 9 inches and the gate raised 2 inches. With this force, the wheel moved majestically, operating upon two double forcing pumps of 14 ½ inches diameter each, and propelling the water through a raising main of 20 inches diameter, 850 feet in length, and 93 feet perpendicular height, with a facility which astonished all who witnessed the interesting sight.

In addition to this wheel now ready for operation, we understand that the company have nearly completed a steam engine of an hundred horse power, thus putting to rest all doubts which have heretofore been entertained as to the success of the important works in which they have been engaged. For it must be remarked that the successful application of the mechanical power in the present instance, shows that by the increase of the same means the whole of the waters of the Swatara and Quittapahilla can be carried to the summit.-- Har. Chron.


Republican Compiler (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania), June 27, 1827

Harrisburg, June 18

Union Canal

We take great pleasure in announcing that on Tuesday , the 12th of June, the first canal boat passed from Womelsdorf, westward, through the tunnel to the water works and on the day following to Middletown, on the Susquehanna. The canal is regularly navigated from Middletown to the water works, and anthracite coal conveyed to the latter point. Personal inspection enables us to say, that the canal, through the limestone region lying between the tunnel and the mouth of the Tulpehocken, appears to be completely water tight. A boat passed from Womelsdorf, on the Union canal to the Schuylkill canal, and by it to Philadelphia, where the boat arrived on Friday, the 8th instant - Chronicle.


Republican Compiler (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania), August 1, 1827

Union Canal

We learn that the eastern section of the Union Canal is in operation as far up as Leighstown, and that several boats ply regularly between Womelsdorf and Philadelphia, taking down grain, flour, &c. and bringing up merchandize. Freight from Philadelphia to Womelsdorf, 25 cents per cwt.



Republican Compiler, Gettysburg, PA, March 19, 1828

Extract of a letter dated
Harrisburg, Feb. 20

"Knowing the interest you take in the Union Canal, I am happy to inform you, that yesterday I saw the summit level filled with water, and it gives me great pleasure to state, that my mind is completely satisfied as to the full success of the undertaking.

"The summit level is now kept full by a very small stream, the power is ample to supply it with water to the amount of thirteen to fourteen thousand cubic feet in every twenty-four hours which upon the lowest calculation, will fill from three to four hundred locks. The Canal, therefore, is complete and ready for operation, but by extending the feeder a few miles to Fisher's creek, the additional and extensive reservoir, thereby created would do away the necessity for the steam engines, and render "Assurance doubly sure" of the most ample and full supply of water in all cases and at all seasons.

"This extension of the feeder would bring into operation the immense coal district at the head waters of Swatara, from which, within a reasonable time, an annual amount of tolls would be received equal to the interest on many times its cost. The directors are said to have their attention turned to this object and in my view it is of primary importance, not only as regards a sure, steady and increasing revenue, but also a sure and never failing supply of water.

"On the whole, I have no hesitation in saying that you may rely with full confidence on the success of this Canal, and were you to see the facility with which boats are passed through the Locks, and the little time it occupies, (I believe two or three minutes,) you would prefer them to those of a larger size," - Demo. Press.


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