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The Union Canal

By Ruth Shireman

Photo of the Union Canal and one of the lockes.

The Union Canal was a towpath canal that existed in southeastern, Pennsylvania during the 19th century.  It was first proposed in 1690 to connect Philadelphia with the Susquehanna River (near what is Middletown now).    

The approximate route for the Union Canal was first conceived by William Penn and had the distinction of being the first canal route to be surveyed in America.

"It is now my purpose to make another settlement upon the river Susquehanagh... and the most convenient place for communications with former plantations in the east...which will not be hard to do by water by benefit of the river Scoulkill, for a branch of that river lies near a branch taht runs in the Susquehanagh River (Swatara Creek) and is the common course of the Indians with their skins and furrs into our parts...from the west and northwest parts of the continent"


This canal connection was discussed for many years.  In 1762, David Rittenhouse, an astronomer, and David Rittenhouse, Provost of the University of Pennsylvania, made surveys over Penn’s Route from Reading to Middletown.  This route was later known as the Union Canal.

The Revolutionary War halted the construction of the canal before anything else was done.  In 1792, two companies were chartered by the State of Pennsylvania to build a navigational waterway between the Schuylkill River at Reading and the Susquehanna River at Middletown.  By 1794, the companies had completed 15 miles of work, including several locks and had spent $440,000, which exhausted their funds.  The work stopped for the next 27 years.  The legislature granted the companies the right to raise another $400,000 by means of lotteries.  But by 1811, the two companies, united under the name of the “Union Canal Company”, had only managed to raise $60,000.

New York’s partially completed Erie Canal became an economic threat to Pennsylvania commerce.  The Union Canal Company was offered financial aid by the State of Pennsylvania to help push the canal through to completion.  The Union Canal was completed and opened to grade between 1821 and 1828.

The Union Canal was a remarkable feat of engineering.  It was 4 feet deep and 36 feet wide at surface level and 24 feet wide at the bottom.  In a distance of just 81 miles between Reading and Middletown, the canal climbed 311 feet to the summit level of the canal at Lebanon.  It then descended a total of 192 feet to the level of the Susquehanna River at West End.  To accomplish this a total of 93 lift locks, 75 feet long and 8 ½ feet wide, were used.

In the spring of 1828, the first boat, “The Fair Trader”, finished it’s trip from Philadelphia to Middletown in 5 days.  The distance from the Swatara to the Schuylkill in a direct line was but 43 miles.  But with it’s many curves made the Union Canal the distances of 74 miles long.  The main line of the PA canal system joined with the Union Canal in Middletown and continued thru Highspire and Steelton to Harrisburg.

Maintaining water in the top level of the Union Canal was a tremendous problem.  The limestone soil allowed rapid water leakage.  That was subsequently offset by lining the canal walls with heavy planks at the bottom and sides.  It was necessary to use four huge pumping engines to raise water to the summit level of the canal.

Unfortunately, the designers of the Union Canal had been too conservative.  The channel and locks of the canal were made so narrow that the heaver freight boats and large passenger boats could not use the canal.

The canal proprietors secured permission from the State Legislature to widen their channel in 1841.  After spending $6,000,000 for this enlarging program the Union Canal was then able to handle larger boats from 75 to 80-ton capacity.  But over the time, the Union Canal Company could not recover from this enormous additional investment and went into bankruptcy.  With the development of the Pennsylvania Railroads, the canal system and the Union Canal were finally abandoned in 1885.

The railroad demonstrated their superiority by providing freight service that was faster and cheaper.  The canal era came to an end because they could not compete with railroads.

Today, abandoned canals are filled with stagnant water or nearly obliterated with vegetation.  Only occasionally can crumbing remains of the locks are found.  Many are now becoming walking and/or bicycle paths.

A picnic boat out-bound from Lebanon on the Union Canal around 1870.

A picnic boat on the Union Canal around 1870.

Remnants of a canal locke

Photo ofthe ruins of a canal locke.

Map of the Union and Pennsylvania Canals

Map of the Union and Pennsylvania Canals.


Republican Compiler, Gettysburg, PA, January 4, 1826

PA Folklife Vol 39, No1, Fall 1989

American Canal Society Canal Index, Reporter:  William Shank

The Amazing Pennsylvania Canals by William H. Shank, P.E.  1977

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