I travel often to a lot of far out places in search of History. I’ve always been quite the history hunter, on a constant perpetual adventure in search of knowledge and to learn the stories of the people and places that existed hundreds of years ago. It’s actually become quite the addiction.
I was born & raised in a very historic community and I’m actually kind of surprised I didn’t write about my hometown sooner. I’ve lived in this small rivertown along the Susquehanna most of my life and I still discover things I’ve never known before. That’s why I love coming from a place rich with plenty of historic events.
So many people have made their way into Columbia (previously known as Wright’s Ferry) over the past 300 years – militia men, escaped slaves, bounty hunters, bootleggers, gangsters, and workers for the railroad, canals, mills and iron forges – all flowing in and out with the Susquehanna’s waters.
Columbia, once the gateway to the American West, is the biggest of the county’s river-front towns. A hidden gem on the quieter, western side of Lancaster County and offers grand new reasons to visit. It’s just one story shaping the colorful history of this often-forgotten town that has weathered more than its share of disappointments.
The area around present-day Columbia was originally populated by Native American tribes, most notably the Susquehannocks, who migrated to the area between 1575 and 1600 after separating from the Iroquois Confederacy. They established villages just south of Columbia in what is now Washington Boro,
The settlement was founded in 1726 by Colonial English Quakers from Chester County led by John Wright who’d been visiting the region evangelizing among the natives since 1724, many of whom gradually adopted Christianity. The settlement, which began with three family’s grew slowly until Wright established the first ferry across the Susquehanna, “Wright’s Ferry” in 1730—enabling a vast increase in traffic to the west (right) bank—and giving a name to the community which then began to rapidly grow into a town, with its employment specialized around water craft exploitation and standard fundamental colonial cottage industries. Joining the Wrights were Robert Barber and Samuel Blunston, fellow Quakers who had also resided in the Philadelphia area.
When Wright returned in 1726 with companions Robert and Samuel, they began developing the area, Wright building a house about a hundred yards from the edge of the Susquehanna River in the area of today’s South Second and Union Streets. This structure became home to the Wright family.
In 1730, John Wright was granted a patent to operate a ferry across the Susquehanna River, subsequently established with Barber and Blunston. He also built a ferry house and a two-story log tavern on the eastern shore, north of Locust Street, on Front Street. The tavern has been preserved and is designated as a historic site. It is north of present-day Locust Street, on Front Street along the river, in present-day Columbia. The town that grew up around it was called Wright’s Ferry, a name later changed to Columbia about the time (1789) that our first Congressman, Thomas Hartley, was advocating the establishment of the permanent United States capital here.
Typical fares for the ferry in the 1700s were:
Coach with four passengers, drawn by five horses – 9 shillings; 4-horse wagon – 3 shillings and 9 pence; Man and horse – 6 pence
The ferry crossed just below the present-day Memorial Bridge in the vicinity of Walnut and Locust streets. John Wright, Jr. built a tavern and ferry house on the western shore, founding Wrightsville. The crush of people, horses and belongings created riverfront traffic jams of Conestoga wagons. Waiting their turn to cross on the ferry (which could take days) frustrated some travelers, who passed the time by imbibing when they weren’t asleep. It’s no wonder extra dungeons were created beneath the town’s market house to handle the regular jail’s overflow.
The ferry operated for nearly 200 years, evolving from flat boats poled across the river to the paddle wheelers, named Helen and Mary. According to an August 1962 York Dispatch article, both of these boats were destroyed by an ice jam in 1925. The article says that at that time Mary’s wooden hulk “lies in mud at foot of Columbia’s Walnut St. wharf” and that Helen had been “pushed ashore at Wrightsville, cut up and sold for scrap.”
Robert Barber constructed a sawmill in 1727 and later built a home near the river on the Washington Boro Pike, along what is now Route 441. The home still stands, across from the Columbia Wastewater Treatment Plant, and is the second oldest in the borough (after Wright’s Ferry Mansion).
In 1738, John Wright’s son, James Wright built a family home. The old frontier town is alive and well in this restored 1738 mansion, which interprets the life of early settler, Susanna Wright, John Wright’s daughter. The home was originally built for members of Columbia’s founding family.
The pre-Revolutionary War house exemplifies Pennsylvania architecture in the English style and is rumored to have subterranean passageways leading to the Susquehanna River. It is furnished completely with items made before 1750, including needlework, ceramics, glass and other decorative arts. It reflects upon the life of an 18th-century Pennsylvania Quaker household. The mansion remains a local landmark in Columbia.
Susanna Wright was a brilliant, innovative Quaker, who contributed to the colonial settlement of Columbia along the Susquehanna. In an age when women were expected to marry and comply to the orders of the male members of the family, Susanna remained unmarried and pursued a variety of scholarly interests. Her story is that of a remarkable woman, who thrived on the frontier and became well-known as a poet and pundit, botanist, business owner, and scholar.
Samuel Blunston constructed a mansion called Bellmont, atop the hill next to North Second Street, near Chestnut Street, at the location of the present-day Rotary Park Playground. Upon his death, Blunston willed the mansion to Susanna Wright, who had become a close friend. She lived there, occasionally visiting brother James, ministering to the Native Americans, and raising silkworms for the local silk industry, until her death in 1784 at the age of 87. The residence was demolished in the late 1920s to allow for construction of the Veterans’ Memorial Bridge.
Wright and town citizens renamed the town “Columbia” in honor of Christopher Columbus in the hope of influencing the new U.S. Congress to select it as the nation’s capital, a plan George Washington favored; a formal proposal to do so was made in 1789. Unfortunately for the town, when Congress voted in 1790, the final tally was one vote short.
The Susquehanna river came to be the political boundary between the unsettled lands of the two counties. Development of the ferry led to the growth of towns around both landings: present-day Columbia on the eastern shore and Wrightsville on the western. In Columbia, the ferry landing was located immediately south of the present-day Columbia-Wrightsville Veterans Memorial Bridge. Route 462, the Lincoln Highway, now passes through this area.
Columbia became an incorporated borough in 1814, formed out of Hempfield Township. The same year, the world’s longest covered bridge was built across the Susquehanna to Wrightsville, facilitating traffic flow across the river and reducing the need for the ferry.
After handling traffic across the Susquehanna for 18 years, it was destroyed by high water, ice, and severe weather in the winter of 1832. A replacement covered bridge was built in 1834. Built by James Moore and John Evans at a cost of $157,300, this bridge, too, enjoyed the distinction of being the world’s longest covered bridge. This year also saw construction of the first railway line linking Columbia and Philadelphia, which subsequently became part of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Named the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad, it officially opened in October 1834.
On June 28, 1863, during the Gettysburg Campaign, the replacement covered bridge was burned by Columbia residents and the Pennsylvania state militia to prevent Confederate soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia from entering Lancaster County. General Robert E. Lee had hoped to invade Harrisburg from the rear and move eastward to Lancaster and Philadelphia, and in the process destroy railroad yards and other facilities.
The burning of the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge thwarted Lee’s goals for the invasion of Pennsylvania, and General Gordon later claimed the skirmish at Wrightsville reinforced the erroneous Confederate belief that the only defensive forces on hand were inefficient local militia, an attitude that carried over to the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg.
Residents helped Union soldiers burn “the world’s longest covered bridge” (more than a mile) that linked Columbia and Wrightsville, halting Confederate plans to advance on Harrisburg, Lancaster and Philadelphia. But they got little thanks and no government cash to rebuild the bridge after the Civil War.
Some historians say Columbians’ bridge-burning success changed the course of the war — by sending Confederates in Gettysburg’s direction. As usual for the hapless town, however, all of Gettysburg’s skirmishes and battles continue to capture much more attention than Columbia’s selfless sacrifice of a strategic bridge.
Though besieged for a short while by Civil War destruction, Columbia remained a lively center of transport and industry throughout the 19th century, once serving as a terminus of the Pennsylvania Canal. Later, however, the Great Depression and 20th-century changes in economy and technology sent the borough into decline.
After the wartime bridge burning, a tugboat, Columbia, was used to tow canal boats across the river. In 1868, yet another replacement covered bridge was built, but was destroyed by a hurricane in 1896.
The next bridge, the Pennsylvania Railroad Bridge, was a steel open bridge which carried the tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad and a two-lane roadway for cars. It was dismantled for scrap by November 1964, but its stone piers, which supported the Civil War-era bridge, can still be seen today, running parallel to the Veterans’ Memorial Bridge on Route 462. The piers have become the site of present-day “Flames Across the Susquehanna” bridge-burning reenactments sponsored by Rivertownes PA USA.
By 1900, the town’s population had grown to over 12,000, with a 50% increase from 1880 to 1900.
The term ‘underground railroad’ was coined here by a frustrated slave hunter who noticed his prey always vanished in Columbia, thanks to its abolitionists. During this time in 1901, slaves seeking freedom were transported across the Susquehanna, fed and given supplies on their way north to other states and Canada. To slave hunters from the South, the slaves seemed to simply disappear, leading one hunter to declare that there “must be an underground railroad here.”
In 1930, yet another bridge, the Veterans Memorial Bridge, was opened to improve traffic flow across the Susquehanna. It first opened as a toll bridge; to avoid the toll, in the coldest winter months some daring motorists would cross on the firmly frozen river. Later that same decade, many of the city’s brick sidewalks were converted to concrete; the bronze plaques of the concrete installers are still visible today.
Today, people of Columbia don’t just preserve their history – they live it, breathe it and welcome it like an old friend. To appreciate the early history of Wright’s Ferry/Columbia, take a long look at the expanse of the Susquehanna River visible from the restaurant or patio at John Wright’s Factory and Store, in Wrightsville. Just across the river from Columbia and dominated by the lengthy Veteran’s Memorial Bridge, the view also includes a look at the 25 piers of the bridge destroyed during the Civil War.
There are plenty of things to do in this small rivertown. Read on to see just a small list of historic places to explore while in the area.
There’s the everyday history that can be found in the town’s antiques shops – many of which are appropriately housed in repurposed old buildings. Take the former State Theater, for example. Opened in 1928 as one of the largest movie theaters outside of big cities, it boasted 40 ft. ceilings and a seating capacity of close to a thousand. Recently, the movie house turned into the Old State Theatre Antique Mall, which now does a brisk business in entertainment-related memorabilia such as sports, carnivals and arcade games.
Burning Bridge Antiques Market features three floors of astounding architectural finds including stained and leaded windows, mantels, wood trim, doors and fixtures, plus commercial artifacts such as post-office boxes, cash registers and old pharmaceutical bottles. It’s also the site of an infamous 1917 fire that destroyed the fourth floor and killed a fireman, whose ghost reportedly can be heard walking up and down the stairs.
Call ahead to request a personal tour of Columbia’s two-room First National Bank Museum. Preserved as it was on its last day of business in 1919, current owners Nora and Michael Stark tell fascinating stories about its thrifty ghost and the bullet hole in one of the bank’s thick, wooden window shutters.
Prudhomme’s Lost Cajun Kitchen – offered colorful history as a watering hole for bootleggers, gangsters and residents during Prohibition as well as authentic and delicious “N’Awlins” fare. Unfortunately, this establishment has been permanently closed.
The Columbia Market House – with its abandoned jail, probably is the town’s most haunted place. The market itself is said to be frequented by a little blonde girl named Katie Durberow, whose family owned a chocolate company across the street. Katie is a benign spirit: People at market have reported feeling a child’s hand holding theirs and the sound of jacks being played. Below ground is a whole other story, don’t forget to check out ‘The Dungeon’ Columbia’s Deep Dark Secret”
Columbia Historic Preservation Society Located in the original English Evangelical Lutheran Church, Columbia Historic Preservation Society is dedicated to the preservation of the rivertown, formerly known as Wright’s Ferry. The museum houses artifacts and publications pertaining to the town’s history.
Zion Hill Cemetery – This cemetery is the final resting place of many soldiers who fought with the Black Company from Columbia during the Civil War. This company fought against Confederate troops advancing along the Wrightsville-Columbia Bridge. Among those buried at Zion Hill is Robert Loney, a Civil War soldier and conductor on the Underground Railroad whose own family was among the first group of slaves freed in the early 1800s.
Mt. Bethel Cemetery – Dates from the 1720’s, is the oldest burial ground in continual use in the Columbia area. The interred represent the rich and diverse history of the Columbia area and the cemetery predates the formal creation of the Borough by Samuel Wright in 1788. Most of the founding family members can be found here.
Wright’s Ferry Mansion is a historic home located in Columbia. It was built in 1738, and is a 2 1/2-story, rectangular limestone dwelling with a gable roof and pent eave. The Mansion has been restored and furnished by The Von Hess Foundation with meticulous care to the time that Susanna Wright lived in the house, from 1738 till 1750, and is the only Pennsylvania English Quaker house that has been furnished exclusively to the first half of the eighteenth century.
The National Watch and Clock Museum – located in Columbia, is one of very few museums in the United States dedicated solely to horology, which is the history, science and art of timekeeping and timekeepers.
Lloyd Mifflin, a 19th century poet and painter from Columbia. He was known as ‘America’s Greatest Sonneteer’ for writing over 500 poems. His landscape art captured the Susquehanna River and its tributaries, choosing the peacefulness of nature over the noise of the industrial areas. Pictured below is his home, “Norwood,” in Columbia.
The Northwest Lancaster County River Trail is a 14-mile trail located along the Susquehanna River in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The trail follows the historic Pennsylvania Main Line Canal, tracing the Susquehanna River northwest from Columbia to Falmouth.
The Columbia Crossing River Trails Center a gateway visitor education center and trailhead for land and water trails in the Susquehanna Riverlands. Visitors will find educational offerings focus on the river’s historic, scenic, and recreational stories and experiences.