When Cliff Zeller started his journey to document the remains of the Union Canal, he knew it was going to be a long trip, filled with plenty of roadblocks and detours.
“I have no timeframe for it, but I knew it would take a while to complete,” Zeller said. “I actually started in 2018, and then let it go for a little while because I realized how daunting it would be. But then I picked it up again, accepted the challenge.”
It was, he ultimately decided, a trip worth making no matter what obstacles he may and has encountered along the way.
“I got chased – well, I almost got chased by a bull in Myerstown,” said Zeller. “I had permission to go through the farm, and they had warned me about the bull. They were standing in the canal, a whole herd, and he started making this loud noise at me, like, yeah, snorting.”
Zeller believes it’s important to capture the canal’s existence, all of it, and document via video its remains so he can share its value to the nation’s commerce as a mode of transportation for goods and services during the 1800s.
That’s assuming a particular section of the canal can be accessed, since many portions are located on private land.
Zeller said he reaches out to landowners to ensure he has permission to access their properties to record a segment for his YouTube channel. Another challenge is figuring out where he can legally park his SUV, which he refers to in his videos as “Naomi.”
“I’ve not encountered any mean people yet, and some just don’t get back to you. They’re busy, so it is what it is,” said Zeller. “Others are surprised that they got a letter because they say no one writes letters anymore. I write letters because I don’t like driving to people’s houses to ask permission.”
Once permission is granted, there is the added challenge of locating a section of the canal once he’s on-site, since much of its remains are today grown over with grass and brush.
“That’s always a big problem – there aren’t pictures online,” said Zeller. “I mean, there are some here and there, but you are documenting it, saying here it is and here’s what’s left. It’s important to other people to see what’s left, and it’s important to me as well – even if all that you document is what’s (still) here.”
Known to his 61,500 YouTube subscribers as The Wandering Woodsman, Zeller’s current “journey” is to create a video library featuring the 82-mile canal, which runs from Middletown in Dauphin County through Lebanon County to Reading on the Schuylkill River.
He said Lebanon County is fortunate to have a number of locks still intact that he’s been able to videotape, but he also noted that some have been lost through development and the sands of time.
Lebanon County has quite a few preserved – especially in the Myerstown area. There are quite a few preserved locks you can go and see there, and that’s also true here in the park. The one up there is massive,” said Zeller, referring to Lock 6, which is located north of the Waterville Bridge parking lot. “And also, in some ways, how much of it is completely gone – gone. The Pennsy Supply quarries there along (Route) 422, those were all part of the canal, and that is gone. So, you come to realize how much of it is completely gone, too.”
Over the past two years, he’s been filming for posterity segments of the canal, including various sections located in Lebanon County. Of the 45 Union Canal videos he has taped so far, he believes about half showcase portions of the canal in the Lebanon Valley.
“People know the canal is here, but the information online is basic,” said Zeller, who is a Womelsdorf-area resident. “And while people know about parts of it like the locks here at the (Swatara State) park, throughout the whole length of it, there’s all kinds of remnants that no one knows are there.”
It’s interesting that Zeller, who is a self-avowed shy and introverted individual, would have his own YouTube channel.
“I’m kind of a shy person. I’m an introvert,” said Zeller. “It was awkward, at first, when people recognized me. I didn’t really know how to react. Like in a grocery store, people will come up to you and say, ‘Hey, Cliff,’ and you try to place their face, and then you realize that this isn’t someone that you actually know. That’s a weird experience, but I’ve become more used to it.”
An unintended consequence of having your own social media channel is the celebrity that comes with it.
During an interview in Swatara State Park at the Waterville Bridge parking lot, a lady, who was wearing a Lebanon High School Cedars t-shirt, was pleasantly surprised when she exited her car to walk her dogs and recognized Zeller being interviewed. “I know you, and I love your videos!” she exclaimed to him across the lot.
This proclamation temporarily turned Zeller’s face red, but he acknowledged her and said, when asked by LebTown, that he guessed he was a minor celebrity. Then, there are also the interesting fan emails that come to him.
“Older people tell me that they walk along with me when they watch my videos. They feel like they are part of it, even if they can’t get out and about,” said Zeller. “One lady emailed me that she plays my videos in the nursing home. I guess they’re calming to people. I don’t really cater to young people. I don’t have loud music blaring, and I am not doing daredevil antics.”
Zeller is a part-time co-op (home-school) science teacher, and his YouTube channel provides the rest of his income. He added that he uploads about a video every day to his channel, which currently contains over 1,500 videos.
His videos are predominantly shot across Pennsylvania, and he’s working on several other projects in addition to his video series on the Union Canal.
When he has time, Zeller is documenting covered bridges in the commonwealth, the highest geographical point in each of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties; he’s filming a series on French and Indian War battle sites located in Pennsylvania, and he plans to shoot videos about all 124 state parks.
When noted in an article that LebTown published on Oct. 27, 2020 that he wished to remain anonymous, he acknowledges those days are long gone.
“I was initially worried about people knowing where I lived, but it’s too late now,” said Zeller. “A lot has changed since that interview with him (Jeff Falk). The channel has grown a lot more since then.”
Being The Wandering Woodsman has benefited Zeller on his personal journey through life.
“I’ll always be an introvert, but this has also helped me gain a lot more confidence, too,” said Zeller. “When I first started, people laughed and made fun of me. When people think of YouTube, they think of extroverted, charismatic characters, and that’s not who I am. But I also have met a lot of cool people.”
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