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History of Swatara State Park

Prehistory

The bedrock of Swatara State Park is predominately sedimentary rocks formed during the Middle Devonian Period, about 375 million years ago. The area was a shallow, sunlit seafloor where mostly filter-feeding organisms thrived in gentle sea currents. Today, we find these concentrations of shell and skeletal matter exposed as rock.

Canals

​After the area was settled by Europeans in the 1750s, anthracite coal was discovered in the Tremont area. During the 1820s, as the demand for coal rose, a need for better transportation led to the construction of the Union Canal that connected the Schuylkill and Susquehanna rivers.

The Union Canal Company’s Branch Canal to Pine Grove had its beginnings as a 6.4 mile navigable feeder canal completed in November 1827. The Swatara Feeder, as it was called, ran from the Water Works Dam north along the Swatara Creek to Finnegans Dam about 2.4 miles north of Jonestown.

During 1828, work began to extend the canal to Pine Grove. When completed, the canal ran approximately 21.6 miles along the Swatara Creek from Water Works to its terminus at the head of the Pine Grove Basin. From the basin, the Union Canal Railroad forged north for approximately 3.6 miles to the southern end of the anthracite coal region at Lorberry Junction.

Major features of the Branch Canal included fourteen lift locks, one guard lock, six aqueducts, and four large dams. There were also basins, culverts, farm bridges, road bridges, and several towpath bridges built and maintained by the Union Canal Company of Pennsylvania, local governmental bodies, and private owners.

Numerous small feeder dams dotted the landscape along the canal. The canal was a complex water management system that required constant vigilance, maintenance, and competent, reliable personnel to operate it.

The canal operated until it was destroyed by a flood in June of 1862.

The remains of seven locks, a towpath bridge, major sections of the towpath, and three dams are still visible in Swatara State Park.

The canal was never rebuilt because the railroad soon went into operation on the opposite bank of the Swatara Creek.

Map of the Union Canal in Swatara State Park (PDF)

Railroads

During 1870, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Company opened a railroad spur running from Lebanon to Pine Grove. About 60 years after the advent of the railroad, a more sophisticated highway system was constructed. By 1965, the railroad in the northern section of the park had been abandoned and by the early 1980s, the line from Suedberg south to Lebanon was abandoned.

Today, trucks using Interstate 81 carry most of the cargo that was once transported through the park by rail. The Swatara Rail Trail is what remains of the railroad bed.

Modern Times

Although not a major source of commerce, there was also a small airport located along the rail line that accommodated aircraft as large as the DC-3 but more commonly, smaller aircraft like the Piper J-3 Cub and helicopters.

The commonwealth began acquisition of the park in 1971 and was completed in 1987 by the Department of General Services.

Waterville Bridge

This cast iron bridge was built in 1890 by the Berlin Iron Bridge Company of East Berlin, Connecticut, to cross Little Pine Creek in Lycoming County. The Bridge is a 221-foot long lenticular truss bridge. It is one of several such bridges built in north central Pennsylvania in the late 19th century.

During the 1980s, the bridge was determined to be too narrow for modern use. Instead of being demolished, the bridge was dismantled, repaired, moved, and rebuilt across the Swatara Creek to allow hikers on the Appalachian Trail to cross the stream, which led to the bridge sometimes being called “the AT Bridge.”