Historical Excursions in Lebanon Valley

Author Michael Crichton once said, “If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.”

Often when someone is born and raised in an area, he takes for granted the gems in his own backyard. The Lebanon Valley has a number of landmarks rich in history that both tourists and residents alike can take advantage of and visit this summer with their families. These historical landmarks offer residents the chance to reconnect with their roots, and visitors the chance to learn more about the local culture.

The Cornwall Iron Furnace

According to the Cornwall Iron Furnace’s website, the landmark “is an extraordinary example of the furnaces that dotted the Pennsylvania countryside in the 18th and 19th centuries” and it is the only surviving furnace of its kind located in the Western Hemisphere. Originally founded in 1742 by Peter Grubb, the furnace switched hands to Robert Coleman in 1798. By 1883, the Cornwall Iron Furnace was out of operation and in 1932 it was donated to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania by Robert Coleman’s descendent, Margaret Coleman Freeman Buckingham.

Today, the Cornwall Iron Furnace is open for tours for those interested in stepping back in time to when cannons, stoves, and other products were originally cast in the furnace. Great for school and family trips, the tours cost $8 for regular admission, $4 for junior admission (ages 3-11), and $7 for individuals 65 and older. Anyone interested in learning more about the history of this Lebanon Valley landmark, its hours of operation, or for directions can visit cornwallironfurnace.org or call 717-272-9711.

Lebanon County Historical Society

Located on Cumberland Street in Lebanon, the main street which runs through Lebanon City, the Lebanon County Historical Society is the one-stop shop for anyone interested in delving into the history of the Lebanon Valley. Originally founded in 1898 by local Lebanonians, the historical society didn’t offer public exhibits until 1935.

The Lebanon County Historical Society is comprised of the Hauck Research Archives, the Reese Memorial Hall, a gift shop and the Stoy Museum. In the Hauck Research Archives, those interested in tracing their genealogies, or searching for historic events in the area, can peruse through an expansive collection of church records, federal census records, local newspapers, marriage records, and a variety of manuscripts and photos. There is a nominal fee for using the archives.

The Stoy Museum is a collection of exhibits representing Lebanon County through the years, from its original founding and onward, as well as the area’s Pennsylvania German heritage. When it was first built in the 1780s, the museum was the home of Dr. William Henry Stoy, a minister and doctor. The upper rooms were later used as Lebanon County’s first courthouse (where President James Buchanan practiced). The Stoy Museum features a one-room schoolhouse exhibit, as well as exhibits set up to look like early shops and household rooms, including a Victorian parlor, a pharmacy, a dress shop, and a barber shop.

Tours at the Stoy Museum cost $6 for adults (ages 16-64), $5 for seniors (ages 65 and older), and $3 for students (ages 9-17). Members of the Lebanon County Historical Society and children eight and under are free. For tour schedules and for more information, visit lebanoncountyhistoricalsociety.org or call 717-272-1473.

Union Canal Tunnel

The idea for the Union Canal was originally put forward by William Penn in 1690 to help gain access to the agricultural potential of Pennsylvania and to help found another settlement along the Susquehanna River. The survey conducted for this project between 1762 and 1770 was the first ever conducted in the US.

Work for the canal began in 1792 under the Schuylkill and Susquehanna Canal Co. Due to financial issues, the construction had to cease and wasn’t restarted again until the Union Canal Company of Pennsylvania began it again in 1811. The canal was completed in 1828, though an enlargement of the canal’s 102 locks was carried out in the 1850s. The introduction of the railroad, as well as other factors, led to the closing of the canal in 1885.

Construction for the Union Canal Tunnel itself took place from 1825 through 1827. The tunnel was originally 729 feet long, though it was eventually reduced to 600 feet, and was constructed by hand drilling and by gunpowder blasting. Boats were led along the canal by mules, and were poled through the tunnel as the mules went over the hill.

Currently owned by the Lebanon County Historical Society, the Union Canal Tunnel is the “oldest existing transportation tunnel in the United States” (lebanoncountyhistoricalsociety.org). Individuals and families are invited to go for a narrated boat ride down the Union Canal and through the tunnel to learn more about this historic landmark and to take in the beauty of Union Canal Tunnel Park. Tours cost $8 for adults and $4 for those ages 6 – 18. Children under 6 are free. Union Canal Days are held annually at the landmark as well as other periodic events. For event and tour schedule information, visitors are encouraged to contact the Lebanon County Historical Society.

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