Swatara Water Trail
Just east off of Ono Road, Water Works was a community built to support the canal. The weigh master's house was used as a headquarters for the Union Canal at Water Works. A "weigh wall" still stands where boats were tied for weighing their freight loads. An old icehouse that stored ice cut from a dam in winter provided employment for canal workers in the winter. SCWA constructed and adopted a canoe launch at the Water Works. More @ June 27, 2001 Minutes
WATER WORKS — For nearly 60 years, the Union Canal served as a major transportation route from Philadelphia to the Susquehanna River, carrying goods and supplies from Pennsylvania’s heartland to Philadelphia’s port.
Now, more than 120 years after it closed for good, the waterway, the local tunnel that bears its name and the settlements that gave it life remain a vital link to history in the Lebanon Valley.
The canal’s goal was to join Philadelphia to the Susquehanna Valley. Surveying on what would eventually be an 82-mile-long waterway took place in the 1760s and 1770s. Actual digging began in 1792.
In the early 19th century, the canal thrived, said W. James “Jim” Schucker, treasurer of Friends of the Union Canal Tunnel Park of the Lebanon County Historical Society, a group formed in 1994 to maintain, preserve and develop the park. Then, to accommodate larger boats, the canal’s 102 locks were enlarged in the 1850s.
Despite the efforts, the future remained dim. Costly repairs, continual water problems and the completion of the Lebanon Valley Railroad from Reading to Harrisburg in 1857 reduced the canal’s revenues, causing it to close in 1885.
But its legacy lives on.
Because of all the business it provided, the waterway spurred several settlements along its path. For example, its route through what is now the northside of Lebanon is largely responsible for the development of that part of town.
Likewise, Water Works, a small residential village in North Annville Township, owes much of its existence to the canal.
Located at a crossing of the Swatara Creek, Water Works is where the Union Canal joined the Swatara Creek and followed it to the Susquehanna River at Middletown.
The village might never have flourished or received its name had the canal’s builders stuck to the original plans. Initially, the canal was to follow the Quittapahilla Creek through Lebanon until it merged with the Swatara, north of Palmyra.
The engineers decided the canal would need to tap the water of the Swatara sooner, and it would be better to have the canal connect with the creek at its southernmost point, the location of Water Works, Schucker said. This northern swing brought about the Union Canal Tunnel.
After cutting through the hill now known as Tunnel Hill, the canal met the waters of Cattail Run, now called Clark’s Run. This is the stream that was dammed in 1866 to create a reservoir known today as Lions Lake. It was one of several dams built in the area to keep a reserve of water to ensure there was enough for the canal during the dry seasons. Stoever’s Dam and Strack’s Dam were also built for this reason.
From the dam at Lions Lake, Cattail Run flowed west to within several hundred feet of the north end of the tunnel, then west and north to meet the Swatara.
Instead of being allowed to enter the Swatara, however, a dam was built that stopped the flow of Cattail Run and created a reservoir known as the “Water Works Dam.”
While the Water Works Dam sat higher than the Swatara itself, it was still lower than the summit of the canal, which was in the Lebanon area. A problem arose in getting the water that flowed downhill from the summit to Water Works back uphill so there was a constant water level at the summit.
For this, two 40-foot-high water wheels were installed to power four pumps, which forced water through iron pipes to the top of a nearby hill. The wheels, which measured 10 feet in width, were housed in a stone structure known as the Water House.
It took seven times the amount of water coming from the dam to turn the wheels as the pumps were able to move up the hill, Schucker said. In other words, for every seven gallons of water that turned the wheels, one gallon made it up the hill.
The water was collected at the top of the hill in a structure called the receiver before the water began its journey back to the summit.
During the dry seasons, not enough water could be moved to the summit as was needed, so steam engines were purchased and placed into service at the water works. When in full operation, 12 million gallons of water were returned to the summit from the water works each day.
Initially, an open trough was built above ground to transport the water from the receiver to the summit. The trough wove its way through the countryside a little over four miles until it reached the first lock west of the tunnel, where it entered the canal.
The above-ground trough lost water through spills, evaporation and leakage, so it was eventually replaced by a wood-and-brick aqueduct that ran underground at some places and above ground at others. Because it cut through and went over hills instead of meandering around them, the new aqueduct cut the length of the feeder to about 3.4 miles until it reached the canal.
Although the Rube Goldberg system seems inefficient today, the water works was such a major feat of engineering of its time that Union Water Works quickly became the de facto name of the village.
“Of course, they just simply pumped the water up to a high hill right next to it and then let it flow by gravity,” Schucker said. “The first trough, yeah, it would have been very inefficient, because you can imagine the amount of water they lost in spillage. It certainly was a costly thing to get the water back, but water was the key. Without the water you couldn’t operate.”
In addition to the pumping station, Union Water Works was also home to a toll house and one of the two weigh locks on the canal used to determine tolls. The other was in Reading.
The village was also the site of several repair shops used by carpenters and smiths in the employment of the canal company. Boats occasionally were made and repaired at the shops.
Several houses, a hotel, a general store, a grain mill, a lumber yard, a community park and a church all popped up soon after the canal was built as well.
If it weren’t for the canal, Schucker said, the village that is Water Works may not even be there today.
“I’m sure there probably wasn’t anything there before,” he said. “It all grew up around the canal. They had repair sheds there and repaired boats. I guess over the years it became kind of a recreation area, but that came later.”
The Union Canal ceased operation in 1885, and evidence of the canal at Water Works has nearly disappeared. The Water Works Dam served as a swimming hole in the summer months and an ice rink in the winter until flooding from Hurricane Agnes in 1972 destroyed it and most of what was left of the remaining structures.
Today, some stone masonry of the weigh station, towpath and nearby canal locks remains, but it is all on private property and essentially unrecognizable to casual observers.
A small tunnel, resembling the Union Canal Tunnel near Lebanon, that was built to carry the canal’s towpath over a small unnamed tributary of the Swatara Creek also remains, but that has begun crumbling in recent years.
The former Mount Union Hotel, which became the Peiffer Hotel, is still inhabited, now as an apartment building known as Water Works Apartments.
While remnants of the actual canal are few and far between, other things that were spurred by the canal, like Water Works, remain as a reminder of the canal’s impact on the area.
For the complete Trail Guide, click here: Projects/Swatara Water Trail.pdf
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