This afternoon we went to see a surviving section of the Union Canal at Lebanon and had a narrated ride on a canal boat. The Union Canal Tunnel is the oldest existing transportation tunnel in the United States.
In 1690, William Penn had the idea of building a canal to link Philadelphia to the Susequehanna. Nothing was done until the days of George Washington. Work progressed slowly for years. The section which is preserved at Lebanon required a tunnel through limestone. Irish immigrants were hired to do the work.
Work began in May 1825 and was completed in June 1827. The 729-foot tunnel was dug through the ridge dividing the waters of the Quittapahilla Creek and Clark's Run. Drilling was done by hand using a star drill and blasting with gunpower. Progress of the work was five lineal yards per week.
The first boat passed through the Tunnel on June 12, 1827. Boats were poled through the tunnel by pushing against the ceiling or the walls, while the mules were walked up over the top of the ridge and reattached to the boat when it came through the tunnel.
Before the canal was constructed, freight was moved to and from Philadelphia by Conestoga Wagon. A wagon required six horses and could carry five tons. A canal boat could be pulled by one mule and carry 25 tons. Later, larger boats carried 80 tons. The canals were a great improvement and served as the main highways for freight until the railroads took over. The canals closed in the 1880s.
Canal boats were often a family business. The whole family lived on the boat and helped with work. It took them six days to make the 75-mile trip from Middletown to Philadelphia. They usually carried raw materials to Philadelphia and returned with goods and merchandise. It was like long distance trucking with the whole family on board. They worked the canals from March to Christmas, with days starting at 5 a.m. and ending at 10 p.m. I cannot imagine living that lifestyle!
Tunnel with boat coming through