Some of Bill Rothenberger’s most pleasant childhood memories are of his visits to Water Works Lake in North Annville Township in the 1940s and ’50s.

“We swam, we fished, we played hockey there and everything for many years as kids. My dad was a great fisherman and he’d take us there all of the time,” said the 80-year-old Rothenberger, who was raised on 11th Street in Lebanon. “We caught a lot of carp and catfish. It was good fishing, it really was.”

Rothenberger, other local residents and out-of-town guests from as far away as New York state came to this tiny hamlet to enjoy outdoor activities at Water Works Lake, which was created in the 1800s when a dam was built to provide water to the Union Canal.

A small community called Alger would be renamed Union Water Works once that location became an integral operation within the Union Canal, according to local historian Craig Meyer, who moderates the North Annville History Group’s Facebook page.

Read More: The town of Water Works and its connection to the Union Canal

“I don’t know how big it was, but there were some houses in this area,” said Meyer of the original town. “When the canal came through, there was all kinds of industry and all kinds of businesses sprang up around here and there was lots and lots of activity here. That’s when a lot of the buildings were built up.” 

After the canal ceased operations in 1885, the dam remained and Water Works, as it is more commonly known today, would remain a recreational destination for nearly 100 years. 

Historic photos show summer cottages around the lake and other homes built along Swatara Creek in proximity to the canal’s old towpath. Rothenberger said he had an uncle who owned a summer cottage, but added he never visited it. When asked if Water Works was like Mount Gretna, Rothenberger refuted that assessment. 

“It wasn’t like Gretna. There were cottages, and there was swimming and fishing and whatever,” said Rothenberger. “But I’ll tell you what: In the winter it was a popular place. We actually had hockey teams that would play each other. The lake was bigger than Stoever’s Lake, that’s for sure. It was huge, it really was. You weren’t going to swim across it. It was a great place, a recreational place.”

Both Rothenberger and Meyer remember visiting Bachman’s General Store since that business had enough candy and other sugary treats to make any child’s mouth water and keep their dentist happily in business. A second grocer, Maulfair’s Store, also existed in Water Works.

“Before I could drive, my dad would take me and the neighbor kids out there. He was a good friend of Bachman,” said Rothenberger.  “Bachman, old man Bachman they always called him, sold soda and ice cream and this and that there.”

Meyer said he was raised about two miles from Water Works and recalled riding his bike there in his youth.

“When I was a kid in the early 1970s, I’d ride through here and I’d stop and I’d get some candy and a bottle of soda,” said Meyer. 

Lebanon resident Jim Schucker, who has conducted research and written about the Union Canal, also remembers visiting Water Works as a child. 

“I was a kid and whoever took us out there to the lake, took us out to a rather nice house where we changed our clothing,” said Schucker. “Water Works was a recreational area.”

Meyer said some of the buildings that remain in Waters Works, including one church that sits on a hill among spread-out homes, were built in the 1800s. 

Meyer added that the church has gone through numerous iterations and originally opened as a Brethren church, became a United Brethren church and later a United Methodist church. A few years ago, it was purchased by the Mennonite Fellowship, which still operates it today.  

A Feb. 21, 1951, article in The Daily News states that the church was built in 1843 after members had previously congregated in the homes of several families. During the first 108 years of its existence, the same article says the church had three different names: Mount Union Church, Mount Union Water Works Church and Union Water Works Evangelical United Lutheran Church. The church’s adjacent cemetery contains a marker that notes it was also established in 1843. 

The church’s presence is a testament to Water Works being a thriving town. 

“The homes sit up on a hill that overlooks the Swatara Creek and the canal and its operations. Most businesses and operations were right next to the canal,” added Meyer. “The Weigh Station was used to weigh the canal boats. Today, it is believed to be sitting on a private residence along Water Works Way.” 

A home along Water Works Way that sits next to the former hotel was also a business known as the Ice House, according to Dale Gruber, which he believes was a prominent business in the early 1900s. A history and antiques enthusiast, Gruber owns the former Ice House building and lives there. 

“I own some feed troughs that were used to feed the mules that pulled the ice slabs up out of the Swattie and they stored it here. It was later turned into a house, but this was a business at one time,” said Gruber.

In the town’s halcyon days, a hotel sat next to the ice house and other canal-related and non-canal businesses thrived at Water Works. The hotel had different names under various owners, including Peiffer Hotel and Water Works Hotel, according to Meyer.  Today, the former hotel houses apartments.

“I never stayed at the hotel but there was always activity there,” said Rothenberger.  “There seemed to be a lot of New Yorkers who came to our area because they liked the laid-back attitude that was around here. I remember talking to a kid from New York who came here and he said he had never seen a cow, which was a normal thing for us.”

A search on of The Daily News indicates the area was a popular destination. Short blurbs of a few sentences in length appeared in the local news highlighting activities at Union Water Works. 

One such item dated Aug. 8, 1907, indicated that Kamp Komfort had been disbanded and that the campers had “returned to this city after a delightful 10 days outing.” The paragraph fails to state the campers’ affiliation.

Other clips read like society-page news while some provide a snippet of a scheduled event.

A two-sentence announcement on page 1 from Aug. 11, 1897, revealed that the hotel was having a party. The blurb reads: “Jacob Lineaweaver, proprietor of the Union Water Works hotel will on Thursday evening have a grand blow-out on the lawn of his hotel. A grand concert will be given by the band of that place. This will be a great attraction for our fisherman (sic)”

The cottages and visits to them were also considered news, and the paper was happy to announce that families were planning to spend a week presumably on vacation.  

On May 8, 1911, a page-one statement noted that “William H. Hollman and Daniel Carmany of the William Penn hotel, accompanied by the Bollman children, in charge of their nurse, this morning went to the William Penn cottage, at the Union Water works [sic], in North Annville township [sic], to spend the week.”

Other clips highlighted fishing and picnics at the dam and families and groups gathering for dinner at the hotel.

Water Works would remain a popular destination until the town’s landscape was drastically altered in the summer of 1972.

“The flood came along and I was there right after the dam broke and it (the lake) more or less went away,” said Rothenberger about floodwaters from Hurricane Agnes in June of that year.

Gruber, who is a co-worker with Rothenberger, invited him to revisit Water Works years after Hurricane Agnes had destroyed the dam and robbed area residents and tourists of its many recreational activities.

“I went back and I couldn’t believe my eyes. There used to be houses where the dam was and I didn’t know where I was,” said Rothenberger. “I mean, I spent many, many great days there, and it has all changed. It’s just amazing from what I can recollect, and I’m 80, just all that I remember and now there’s nothing there anymore.”

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James Mentzer is a freelance writer whose published works include the books Pennsylvania Manufacturing: Alive and Well; Bucks County: A Snapshot in Time; United States Merchant Marine Academy: In Service to the Nation 1943-2018; A Century of Excellence: Spring Brook Country Club 1921-2021; Lancaster...


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