The Union Canal was plagued by several operational problems. For one thing, by the time it was completed, standard canal boats from the connecting canals had grown too wide to fit through the locks on the Union. Even with the massive water works, the canal had continuous water supply problems. In 1862 a flood destroyed the primary supply dam on the north branch, which was a major source of revenue. As with many small canals of the era, its usefulness was essentially replaced by the construction of railroads.
The Union Canal ceased operation in 1885. Nevertheless, Union Water Works continued on as a vibrant community. It was still a stop along the road from Annville to Ono. Swatara Creek and the Water Works dam were still favorite spots for fishing, swimming, and picnicking. The Mount Union Hotel, formerly under the proprietorship of George Henry and then Amos Deininger, became the Melvin Peiffer Hotel. Augustus Maulfair, who had opened his dry goods store as a young man by 1870, remained in business for more than fifty years. The wooden covered bridge was replaced by an open steel bridge. Many families from Lebanon County had summer cottages among the trees along the Swatty.
Children of the region attended one of the three one-room schoolhouses around Water Works — Meyersville School, Franklin School, and the Herr School. All of the public schools in the township were consolidated into the North Annville Elementary School in 1955. The community park at Water Works, which hosted concerts by local musicians, and its playground attracted visitors from around the region. There were at least two stores which sold mainly snacks and supplies to residents, visitors, and fisherman.
My cousins lived within walking distance of the dam, and we would often go fishing at the dam or across the road in the pond by Bachman’s store, or below the falls where the dam emptied into the Swatty. From the playground, we could walk under the steel bridge to the baseball field on the other side of the highway. Nearer their home, we would play in Cedar Run Creek, which is all that’s left of that section of the canal. In summer we would climb on the abandoned canal locks, tramp around in the water and catch crayfish and minnows. In winter we would go sledding in the meadow, seeing how close we could get to the creek without crashing through the ice. There was one spot on the north branch that was perfect for ice hockey. I know that I knew what a canal lock was, but of course I was oblivious to its historical significance.
The steel bridge at Water Works was replaced by a modern concrete bridge in the 1960s, which cut off the path underneath, but the baseball field became the home field for the Water Works (Annville Boys League, now Annville Youth League) baseball team, and where I played on a visiting team. The Water Works field was later moved to its present location by the fire company.
Today, evidence of the canal at Water Works has nearly disappeared. The dam was destroyed in 1972 when flooding from Hurricane Agnes caused the earthwork dam to break, spilling the entire reservoir into the Swatara Creek. My aunt was driving across the bridge when those floodwaters came over the top. With help from some bystanders, she was able to escape to high ground before the water swept her car over the guardrail into the creek.
If you walk around Water Works today, you might see some stone masonry of the weigh station, a towpath bridge, and remnants of nearby canal locks, but they are all on private property, mostly overgrown with vegetation, and are essentially unrecognizable to the casual observer. The former Mount Union Hotel is still inhabited, now as an apartment building, but the other businesses are gone, and the community playground is gone. The Dohner Mennonite Church and the Water Works United Methodist Church continue to serve their congregations. The Union Water Works Fire Company, a volunteer organization, is perhaps the last link to the Union era.