BY JEFF FALK
NORTH LEBANON – To some it’s The Dog Park. Or a cross country destination. Or a place to take a long boat ride on a short waterway.
What it isn’t is an old Union Canal Tunnel park or some old Union Canal Tunnel park. It is ‘The Old Union Canal Tunnel Park.’
As in, a park which features the oldest canal tunnel in the United States.
Yes, Union Canal Tunnel Park is a great many things to a great many people. But not the least of which is a pristine and serene recreation area which has taken on a life of its own around the Union Canal Tunnel.
Located at 25th Street and Union Canal Drive in North Lebanon Township, Union Canal Tunnel Park is 110 acres of trails, raw nature and history. More than just a place to get in touch with our locale’s past, the presence of Union Canal Tunnel Park can have a profound effect on our futures.
“We get a lot of people who come and fish,” said Dave Weigard, vice president of The Friends of Union Canal Tunnel Park. “We get dog walkers. We get bird watchers. We have a tremendou blue bird population, and last year we had two owls born at the park, so we get a lot of camera buffs. We have wetlands. People come for picnics. People come for canal boat rides.We get loads of school visitors for canal boat rides, and they’re narrated boat rides.
‘We see it perceived as a great spot to take the family,” added Weigard. “It’s perceived as a nice place to go because we work hard at keeping it clean. It’s a healthy place to be because of physical activity. You have to walk. You want to walk. Walking has extreme health benefits.”
Over the years Union Canal Tunnel Park has come to be known locally as ‘The Dog Park’ , because of its friendliness towards our canine companions. It also serves as the home to the Lebanon County Cross Country Championships and the Lebanon Valley College Cross Country Invitational.
“For years and years, it was one of the few parks where you could run a dog without a leash,” continued Weigard. “But then it was decided all dogs should be on a leash, but not everyone follows that. It’s a fantastic place to take a dog for a walk, as long as he’s on a leash and you clean up after the dog. We do have a lot of dog walkers out there.”
“It’s important to maintain the historical value of the tunnel and the canal,” said Weigard. “It’s a huge piece of Lebanon County history. Youre talking about the history of the canal, and the historic economic impact on the area. This was a portal to the west.
“I was big into boating,” Weigard continued. “They needed a boat captain, so I started running canal boats. That’s how I got involved. When you get a 67-year-old boating captain like me, they hang on to you. We try not to fire volunteers.”
Union Canal Tunnel Park is owned by the Lebanon County Historical Society and maintained by The Friends of Union Canal Tunnel Park. It was a mere eight-acre tract before the Historical Society was given a good chunk of land by the Hershey Company.
Then the park added 13 acres of ground north of Tunnel Hill Road to bring its total expanse to 110 acres.
“We have multiple hiking trails – 12, besides the tow path and the mule path,” said Weigard. “And they are in varied settings. Some go over the tunnel. Some are in meadows. Some follow the rail-to-trail. It gives you a varied look at nature. What I like is that it provides varied sceneries on nature trails. And we have wide-open spaces for people to do different activities.
“Usually we get well over three-to-five thousand visitors a year, and that doesn’t include special events,” added Weigard. “People who come here come to fish, they come to picnic and they come to walk their dogs. And we’re open year-round. We have a lot of people who come here with lunches, and go back to work.”
The park conducts two major fundraisers throughout the year, Union Canal Days in the spring Scare Fair in the fall.
“I’ve been a lifelong boater,” said Weigard. “I thoroughly enjoy the canal boat rides. That’s what got me involved. When you have an early summer morning group, it’s so serene. It’s just a wonderful place to be. You can see turtles, frogs, green herons, water snakes, even deer drinking from the canal. And I just thoroughly enjoy taking a boat ride down the canal.
“Over the years it’s become more people friendly,” Weigard added. “We have better developed trails, and miles are marked. We’ve made it more people friendly, which means taking out the dead under brush. Just the fact that we expanded the canal to five-eighths of a mile of navigable water.”
“It’s extremely unique in its architecture,” said Weigard of the ‘Krall Barn’. “We have the barn. We’re doing the engineering work. The erection will hopefully take place at the end of the summer. And we have a new park plan, done by a landscape architect. We have it to develop the park. We want people to be able to walk more easily.
“The park is headed on the same course it’s been on,” Weigard continued. “We’re trying to provide a basis for Lebanon County history, based on the canal. The whole program is about being able to promote the history of the canal. It is designated a national historic civil engineering landmark. In 1994 it was designated a national historic landmark. It’s the longest continuous running transportation canal in the country. It’s hand-carved out of solid rock, and it’s still navigable.”