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When Matt and Meghan Reynolds bought land near the Lickdale trailhead of the Swatara Creek, they didn’t know it contained a piece of local history.
The land encompasses the remains of a small segment of the Old Union Canal, a towpath canal that ran through some 82 miles of southeastern Pennsylvania and was a vital commercial link in the 19th century.
“The segment, which we believe is Lock 11, is pretty obvious,” Matt Reynolds said in an email to LebTown.
“Some of it is buried and some of it is visible,” he said. “It has weathered over the years and is slowly becoming part of the landscape of the forest, so we don’t exactly know what it looked like back then, but there is clear evidence of a man-made structure with aligned and stacked rocks of all sizes.”
A neighbor told them to look for the marks of gate hinges on some of the larger stones, he added. “We dug around and were able to find those marks,” he said. “That was confirmation to us that this is the canal lock location.”
They bought the land about a year ago, Meghan Reynolds said, and learned about the old canal from the previous owner. It’s not a residential tract, he noted.
“We discovered some of the original lock stones from our own exploration,” she said. “There are a few neighbors we met up there that told us some more history of the property, and the (Pennsylvania Canal group on Facebook) has been a huge help in learning more about the history of the land.”
Members of the Facebook group told them that Lock 11 was on their land, “and our own explorations confirmed this,” she added. “We would like to have a historian who specializes in the Old Union Canal to walk the property with us and help us understand exactly where the lock and perhaps other important features are.”
The couple has “learned a lot in the last year” about the canal’s history, she said. “We are still learning, it’s been a fun and interesting process for us.”
According to the Lebanon County Historical Society, the canal was proposed by William Penn in 1690 and was the first canal to be surveyed in the United States.
“First chartered as the Schuylkill and Susquehanna Canal Co., work was begun in 1792 under the direction of William Weston, an English engineer. Several miles of the Canal were dug and 5 locks were built between Myerstown and Lebanon before financial difficulties caused the work to cease. It was this area that President George Washington visited in 1793,” according to information available online at lebanoncountyhistory.org.
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After various efforts to raise the necessary funds, the project was reorganized as the Union Canal Company of Pennsylvania in 1811, and work resumed on the canal in 1821, the website explains. It was finished and opened for commerce in 1828, expanded to accommodate larger vessels in the 1850s, devastated by flooding in 1862 and closed — in part due to the completion of the Lebanon Valley Railroad from Reading to Harrisburg in 1857 — in 1885.
Visitpaamericana.com, a website maintained by Pennsylvania’s Americana Region to encourage local tourism, notes that in the early 1800s the region was, for the most part, “a wilderness,” and the canal was used primarily to transport supplies from potatoes to lumber until the boom in industry led by the mining of anthracite coal in Schuylkill County.
“In total, Pennsylvania had twelve hundred miles of hand-dug canals, with the Union Canal ranking in the top three of importance, for it contributed greatly to the development our country,” according to Visitpaamericana.com.
According to Wikipedia, the Union Canal Tunnel — the oldest existing transportation tunnel in the United States — was purchased by the Lebanon County Historical Society in 1950 and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. A restored portion of the canal is maintained by the Berks County Parks System along Tulpehocken Creek in Wyomissing, and the remains of seven locks, a towpath bridge, portions of the towpath and three dams are still visible in Swatara State Park.
Most of the canal’s length has been lost to development or reclaimed by nature in the years since it closed.
“Without a historian and a map, it’s hard to tell exactly where the old canal route was,” Matt Reynolds said. “We have some understanding of the location of part of the canal next to the towpath, but we aren’t sure the route it took farther back on the property in what is now the woods.”
“We have thought about making a sign to mark where Lock 11 is, similar to the Union Canal Tunnel Historic site sign,” he added. “We appreciate the historic value of the property, and we recognize the sacrifice it took to create something of such a grand scale of civil engineering, and yet was so short lived due to the coming of the railroad.”
Now that they’ve discovered the landmark site, Meghann Reynolds said she and her husband “have considered hosting a walk through for those interested sometime in the future.”
“This part of the canal system has always been off limits due to private ownership over many years,” she said. “We would like to give others the opportunity to see it and explore with us. We do not have any dates set right now, but it’s something we have been considering.”
She noted the Lickdale parcel was also home to the Old Union Forge as well, which is noted in a historical marker on the bridge near their land.
“As far as we are aware, and we may need to check on this to make sure this is correct, the KOA campground across the creek from us is the historical site of the Old Union Forge headquarters,” she said. “And then at some point, the railroad eventually ran through there,” which led to the canal’s eventual closure.
They even found a small cannonball, as well as “lots of trash and nails,” using a metal detector, the couple said, and they hope eventually to “discover something connected to the canal or lock.”
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