The 35th annual Union Canal Day on Saturday, May 18, celebrated the history of not just Lebanon, but the nation.

The over 100 acres of land and 16 trails in the park are maintained by the Friends of the Union Canal Park. This group plans events throughout the spring, summer and fall in addition to the park’s upkeep.

Read More: The rise and fall of the Union Canal: A tale of ambition, struggle, and ingenuity

“This is the oldest water transportation tunnel in the country and we’re responsible for its maintenance,” said Friends co-chair Pam Tricamo. “It’s important for the whole country, and we need to maintain it.”

So, why was the former Union Canal Days shortened to just one day? Despite the event being the park’s largest annual fundraiser, planners lack the manpower to plan and set up a large, two-day event.

“A lot of our volunteers are in their 70s and 80s,” explained Tricamo. “Unless we get some younger volunteers, it’s difficult to get this much work done two days in a row.”

Tricamo explained that the Friends are in need of volunteers ranging from boat captains to boat narrators to running booths or volunteering in other ways. Any help is appreciated, she said.

While there was some rain Saturday, it was nothing planners haven’t seen before. The event is held every year, rain or shine, as planning starts September of the previous year and vendors from all across the state attend.

“We’re always dependent on weather, but we saw more people than I thought we would see,” said Tricamo.

2024 is the 30th year since the canal’s tunnel — the first canal tunnel built in the U.S. still travelable by boat — was designated a National Historic Landmark.

The Union Canal was first proposed by William Penn in his diaries in 1690, long before its eventual completion in 1828. 

The canal was the first major public works project in the United States, said tour guide Ed Martel Saturday, and it enabled flow of goods like oil and iron across its 82-mile length reaching Philadelphia.

“The primary objective [of the Union Canal Day] is to publicize this fantastic park,” said Friends co-chair Suzanne Fry. “It’s the oldest transportation tunnel in the United States and to take a boat tour and actually go through it is an experience in and of itself. It’s an amazing feat of engineering.”

Canal boats were typically operated by families, who would live a fair part of the year on 8′ by 8′ foot cabins on their boats. Entertainer Matt Dodd held a show twice Saturday telling stories, singing songs, and showing off props to demonstrate what life on the canal was like.

The canal has quite a few local connections. The historic Cornwall Iron Furnace, for instance, built a wooden road to the canal to transport iron. 

Modern-day park Lion’s Lake was first built as a water source for the canal, as the canal’s summit — 200 feet above the canal’s low point near Philly — lost water every time boats were lowered in the canal’s locks. Stoevers Dam was also built by the Union Canal Company.

Saturday’s vendors and booths showcased art, culture, and history from Central Pennsylvania and beyond.

One such vendor was the Lebanon Lace Lovers, who showed off a variety of needlework, lacework, and more.

Two ladies with the Lace Lovers worked on traditional Pennsylvania Dutch star embroideries, which were traditionally made with old clothing no longer in wear.

“The stars date back a little over a hundred years, and they were predominately done in Lehigh, York, and Berkes counties,” explained Karen Wattai. “They were made by German settlers, they were very frugal.

Yet another booth, Puddin’ Heartland 1st, showed off young pigs rescued just two weeks ago.

A booth that allowed visitors to make their own butter by shaking heavy cream was another taste of Pennsylvanian farming culture.

Linda Seibert sold a Central Pennsylvanian classic —whoopie pies — in all sorts of flavor combinations.

Others set up ventured into nationwide or even global history, with one tent filled with various historical variations of chess from around the world.

Ed Martel showed off his handmade gourd baskets, made from gourds grown at local farms. Baskets made with gourds are a global tradition, Martel said, with roots both in Africa and indigenous America.

While the Union Canal Day is the park’s largest fundraiser, there will be plenty more events through the year. The park is also open every day to the public to enjoy the wildlife and history.

Other fundraising events include boat tours every Sunday afternoon starting the second Sunday of June. This year, the park is introducing monthly tours in Spanish, which start the third Sunday of June.

Visitors can also tour the canal on kayak twice a month September through October through Cacao Kayaks.

Tricamo also mentioned that the park will partner with the Lebanon Historic Society to introduce three children’s programs in the park, one which will hopefully begin this year and two planned for next year.

Read More:

If you visit the Union Canal Tunnel Park

By Bob Frye

Though a Lebanon native, Ed Martel admits he didn’t know much about the Union Canal for the longest time. He’s hardly alone that way.

“At least once a week we get somebody that says, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve lived here my whole life, and I always heard about the old tunnel. But I never knew what it was about,’” he said. 

A visit to Union Canal Tunnel Park can change that. The 100-plus-acre park is a nice place to just get outdoors, to hike its trails, fish the canal, picnic and watch waterfowl and other wildlife. The Lebanon Valley Rail Trail even connects with it at two points.

But if you visit, there are opportunities to learn its history, too. Martel and others with the Lebanon Valley Historical Society lead narrated canal tours every Sunday from June through the second Sunday in October. Cost is $10 for adults, $5 for students ages 6-17 and free for children. The Friends of the Union Canal Tunnel Park, a committee of the historic society, help maintain the park and fundraise for its upkeep.

The park also partners with Cocoa Kayak Rentals to do guided kayak tours of the canal and offers private group tours.

For details on any of those, or pavilion rentals, call 717-272-1473, visit the Lebanon County Historical Society’s website or check the park’s Facebook page.

There are multiple parking lots for the park, which has north and south sections. But if you’re new to visiting, the park’s primary parking lot is located at the intersection of 25th Street and Union Canal Drive in Lebanon.

For information on canals in general, consider visiting the National Canal Museum. It’s located along the Lehigh River in Easton and offers boat tours, too. Details are at

Finally, the State Museum of Pennsylvania has canal information as part of its second-floor industrial gallery. Details on visiting are at

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Emily Bixler was born and raised in Lebanon and now reports on local government. In her free time, she enjoys playing piano and going for hikes.