Pennsylvania has a rich transportation history ranging from the country’s first covered bridge to the first turnpike. But did you know that it’s also home to the oldest existing transportation tunnel in the United States?
That’s right, the Union Canal Tunnel, located in Lebanon, PA is considered the oldest transportation tunnel in the United States, having been completed in 1827. (Interestingly, the second and third oldest tunnels are also in Pennsylvania.)
The Union Canal Tunnel was part of the Union Canal, which ran from Reading, PA to Middletown in Dauphin County and operated from 1828 until 1885. You can see other remnants of this canal in Swatara State Park.
The Union Canal Tunnel was needed because of a small ridge that separated Quittapahilla Creek and Clarks Run, which were water sources for the canal. Construction started in 1825 and took two years to complete. Amazingly the work was done entirely using hand tools and gunpowder, with work moving at a pace of 15 feet per week.
Once completed in 1827, the tunnel was a vital link for the canal and was 729 feet in length.
When the canal closed in 1885 due to competition from the many railroads in Pennsylvania, the tunnel was abandoned and eventually fell into disrepair.
In the 1930s, the Civil Works Administration began the process of stabilizing and restoring the tunnel, and they were joined in the effort by the Lebanon County Historical Society. The society would eventually purchase the tunnel in the 1950s to help further preserve the site, and, in 1970, the tunnel was recognized as a National Historic Site.
Today, the tunnel and portions of the Union Canal are preserved within the 110-acre Union Canal Park. Dredging operations in the late 20th century have restored just over half a mile of the canal, restoring the tunnel to much of its mid-19th century appearance. It also means the small boats can now pass through the tunnel.
I visited this historic spot with my family on a beautiful summer day. We started our visit in the main parking area and walked a 0.7-mile loop around the southern portion of the canal and tunnel. This hike was along the Tow Path and the Sunny Side Trail and allowed us to see the 1,700 feet of restored canal in the southern portion of the park.
The walk started along the southern side of the canal and followed the old towpath towards the tunnel. This is a very flat trail and while the surface might not make it handicapped accessible, anyone that can walk a flat path should have no issue on this portion of the trail.
The Tow Path follows the canal and reaches the tunnel about a quarter-mile from the parking area.
Right before the tunnel, there is a turning area that was likely used to unhook mules when the canal was operating. After unhooking, the mules were walked up and over the ridge while the boats were pushed with poles through the 729-foot-long tunnel.
The stone face of the Union Canal Tunnel, which is visible from the tunning area, is in impeccable shape and was truly a pleasure to see in person.
There is a narrow stone walkway that approaches the entrance and provides a really nice look at the intricate detail of the stonework. It’s amazing to think that this was made with just hand tools.
Not having visited with a boat, I was unable to actually go into the tunnel, but there are several kayak/canoe launches within the park. Unfortunately, despite the fact that I didn’t see any signs when I visited, it appears that boating isn’t allowed in the park without permission.
For those without their own boats, the Lebanon Valley Historical Society runs Union Canal Days each May where they offer narrated boat canal boat rides through the tunnel. Cocoa Kayaks is also typically on-hand for those that want to rent kayaks for a short ride through the tunnel.
After getting a chance to check out the south entrance to the tunnel, you have two options. The first is simply to retrace your steps back to your car along the Tow Path. This is both the fastest and easiest of the options.
What we opted to do, however, was to climb up and over the tunnel and walk back on the opposite side of the canal along the Sunny Side Trail. This is a very easy walk but does require climbing a small hill and walking on slightly less even terrain.
The far side of the Union Canal along the Sunny Side Trail is a bit more forested and provides some nice views. The highlight, however, is getting a close look at the docked canal boat near the end of the canal (though I don’t know if it’s always there, especially during colder weather).
Still, walking back on this trail adds only a minimal amount of extra distance and provides a different look to the canal, so I think it’s worthwhile to make this a loop.
While this loop offers and quick and easy way to see the highlights of the park, there are other things to do here including several more miles of trails and a connection to the Lebanon Valley Rail Trail.
You could also drive the short distance to a second parking area to check out the northern portion of the restored tunnel and canal on the opposite side of Tunnel Hill Road. Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be an easy way to walk between these two areas of the park.
Overall, the Union Canal Tunnel is a really fascinating spot to visit if you love learning about Pennsylvania history. However, this isn’t just a historic spot, but it’s also quite a beautiful place and a nice area to go for a short and easy walk.
So, the next time you are looking for something to do in Lebanon County, don’t miss this historic spot.
The main parking area for Union Canal Park can be found at the following coordinates along Union Canal Drive a short distance northeast of downtown Lebanon: 40.348321, -76.454845.
The secondary parking area to access the northern end of the tunnel can be found here: 40.350488, -76.463804.
[Click here for information on how to use coordinates to find your destination.]