Columbia, formerly Wright's Ferry, is a borough in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, 28 miles (45 km) southeast of Harrisburg on the left (east) bank of the Susquehanna River, across from Wrightsville and York County and just south of U.S. Route 30. The settlement was founded in 1726 by Colonial English Quakers from Chester County led by entrepreneur and evangelist John Wright. Establishment of the eponymous Wright's Ferry, the first commercial Susquehanna crossing in the region, inflamed territorial conflict with neighboring Maryland but brought growth and prosperity to the small town, which was briefly considered as a candidate for the new United States' capital. 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. It is notable today as the site of one of the world's few museums devoted entirely to horology.
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, as well as points as far south as Maryland. Captain John Smith estimated their numbers to be about 2,000 in the early 1600s.
First Western settlements
In 1724, John Wright, an English Quaker, traveled to the Columbia area (then a part of Chester County) to explore the land and proselytize to a Native American tribe, the Shawnee, who had established a settlement along Shawnee Creek. Wright built a log cabin nearby on a tract of land first granted to George Beale by William Penn in 1699, and stayed for more than a year. The area was then known as Shawanatown.
When Wright returned in 1726 with companions Robert Barber and Samuel Blunston, 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, including sons John Jr. and James. Daughter Susanna, born in England in 1697, arrived in 1718 and moved to the family residence to care for her brothers and sisters after the death of their mother. In 1738, James Wright, flush with his family's ferry earnings, built the Wright Ferry Mansion, the oldest existing house in Columbia, for his family. The structure can still be seen at Second and Cherry Streets.
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).
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.
In 1729, after Wright had petitioned William Penn’s son to create a new county, the provincial government took land from Chester County to establish Lancaster County, the fourth county in Pennsylvania. County residents – Indians and colonists alike – regularly traveled to Wright’s home to file papers and claims, seek government assistance and redress of issues, and register land deeds. The area was particularly attractive to Pennsylvania Dutch settlers. During this time, the town was called “Wright’s Ferry.”
In 1730, John Wright was granted a patent to operate a ferry across the Susquehanna River, subsequently established (with Barber and Blunston) as Wright's Ferry. He also built a ferry house and a two-story log tavern on the eastern shore, north of Locust Street, on Front Street.
The ferry itself originally consisted of two dugout canoes fastened together with carriage and wagon wheels and drawn by cattle. Crossings could be a dangerous enterprise. When several oxen were moved at once, the canoeist guided a lead animal with a rope so that the others would follow; if, however, the lead animal became confused and started swimming in circles, the other animals followed until they tired and eventually drowned.
Typical fares in the 1700s were:
Fares were reduced in 1787 due to competition from Anderson's Ferry, located further upstream near Marietta. Wright’s Ferry was located immediately south of the present-day Veterans’ Memorial Bridge along Route 462. In later years, Wright rented the ferry to others before finally selling it.
Traffic heading west from Lancaster, Philadelphia, and other nearby towns regularly traveled through Columbia, using the ferry to cross the Susquehanna. As traffic flow increased, the ferry grew, to the point of including canoes, rafts, flatboats, and eventually steamboats; it became capable of handling Conestoga wagons and other large vehicles. Due to the volume of traffic, however, wagons, freight, supplies and people often became backed up, creating a waiting period of several days to cross the river. With 150 to 200 vehicles lined up on the Columbia side, ferrymen used chalk to number the wagons.
Wright's Ferry was the first convenient crossing of the Susquehanna River in the region. At the time, however, southern Pennsylvania above the 40th parallel was claimed by the Province of Maryland, which took especial interest in the rural area around the ferry. Fearing an influx of Pennsylvanian settlers that could weaken Maryland's influence, Maryland colonist Thomas Cresap, under the aegis of Lord Baltimore, attempted to establish a competing ferry and a strong landholding presence around the Susquehanna. Pennsylvanians responded in kind; a violent attack on Cresap in October 1730 escalated the situation into a series of bitter (if not bloody) militia skirmishes and heated legal battles. The situation was not fully resolved until a London peace agreement in 1738, which cooled the colonies' territorial dispute and set the stage for the later codification of the Mason–Dixon Line.
Samuel Wright, son of James and Rhoda Wright, was born on May 12, 1754. He eventually became the town proprietor and created a public grounds company to administer the land. Through his trusteeship, the town’s first water distribution system (later the Columbia Water Company) was established, as well as the Washington Institute (the town’s first school of higher learning) and the Locust Street Park, located at what is now Locust Street and Route 462.
In the spring of 1788, Samuel Wright had the area surveyed and formally laid out the town into 160 building lots, which were distributed by lottery at 15 shillings per ticket. "Adventurers", as purchasers were known, included speculators from many areas of the country. 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. Later, Columbia narrowly missed becoming the capital of Pennsylvania; however, Harrisburg was chosen instead, being closer to the state’s geographical center.
Expansion, construction, and transportation
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. The bridge was long and wide, and had 54 stone piers. 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, the Pennsylvania Railroad Bridge, was built within two years.
In February 1826, the Pennsylvania state legislature approved $300,000 for the construction of a canal along the Susquehanna’s eastern shore to bypass rapids and shallows and make the river navigable anywhere along its route. Begun in 1832, the Pennsylvania Canal went into operation in 1833. It started at Columbia, stretching north to the junction of the Juniata River. Travelers could use the canal system to go west from Columbia to Pittsburgh, Lake Erie, Ohio and [present-day] West Virginia, north into New York, and east to Philadelphia. Canal boats could often be seen at the Bruner coal wharf, operated by H.F. Bruner & Sons at North Front and Bridge Streets. The canal was originally planned to extend south from Columbia on the east side of the river, but local property owners objected. Instead, a two-tiered towpath was constructed along the south side of the bridge to transport boats across the river using horse and mule teams. The boats then linked with the Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal along the western shore at Wrightsville. This part of the canal system, which afforded passage to Baltimore or the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, opened in 1840. Several years later, a small dam was constructed across the river to form a pool that allowed steamboats to tow the canal boats. Canals could not be used in winter due to ice and floods, which caused damage that had to be repaired in the spring. These limitations, combined with an increase in railroad traffic, led to the decline of the canals. The Columbia Canal finally closed in 1901, the same year that Wright's Ferry ceased to operate.
During this time, Columbia also became a stop on the Underground Railroad. 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.”
1834 saw the completion of another bridge spanning the river. 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.
By 1852, regular rail transportation from Columbia to Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Harrisburg made the town the commercial center for the area halfway between the county seats of Lancaster and York.
Columbia's role in the Civil War
In early 1863, as the American Civil War raged, a number of local black citizens enlisted in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, a regiment composed of black soldiers serving under white officers. The unit achieved fame in an assault on Fort Wagner in South Carolina. Stephen Swails, one of its members, may have been the first African-American officer commissioned during the Civil War. Other local citizens fought in various regiments of the United States Colored Troops. Some of these veterans are buried in a cemetery located near Fifth Street.
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. Under General Jubal A. Early’s command and following Lee’s orders, General John B. Gordon was to place Lancaster and the surrounding farming area “under contribution” for the Confederate Army’s war supplies and to attack Harrisburg from the east side of the river, while another portion of Lee’s army advanced from the west side. General Early was given orders to burn the bridge but hoped instead to capture it, while Union forces under the command of Colonel Jacob G. Frick and Major Granville O. Haller, hoping to save the bridge, were forced to burn it. Owners of the bridge petitioned Congress repeatedly for reimbursement well into the 1960s, but were denied payment.
With the Union Army of the Potomac hastening northward into Maryland and Pennsylvania, Robert E. Lee ordered his widely scattered forces to withdraw to Heidlersburg and Cashtown (not far from Gettysburg) to rendezvous with other contingents of the Confederate Army. The burning of the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge thwarted one of 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.
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.
In 1875, a new three-story grand town hall opened, featuring a second-floor auditorium that seated over 900 and was used as an opera house. The second floor's ceiling was higher than those of the first and third floors; each level contained 60 windows. The building also included office shops, council chambers, storerooms and market stalls. A -high bell tower, holding the town clock, crowned the building. The clock was visible from all over the borough, and its bell was audible throughout the surrounding countryside. The building was destroyed by fire in February 1947, but was rebuilt as a one-story municipal building that exists today.
Trolley service for the borough and surrounding area was established in 1893, allowing Columbians to take advantage of economic opportunities in Lancaster and other nearby towns. Between 1830 and 1900, the borough’s population increased from 2,046 to 12,316.
By the mid-19th century, Columbia had become a busy transportation hub with its ferry, bridge, canal, railroad and wharves. It was a major shipping transfer point for lumber, coal, grain, pig iron, and people. Important industries of the time included warehousing, tobacco processing, iron production, clockmaking, and boat building. Prominent local companies included the Ashley and Bailey Silk Mill, the Columbia Lace Mill, and H.F. Bruner & Sons.
From about 1854 to 1900, an industrial complex existed in and around Columbia, Marietta and Wrightsville that included 11 anthracite iron furnaces and related structures, as well as canal and railroad facilities servicing them. By 1887, that number had grown to 13 blast furnaces, all operating within a three-mile (5 km) radius of Columbia. The furnaces, which produced pig iron, exemplified the technology of the day through their use of anthracite coal and hot blast for smelting iron ore, a process that dominated the iron industry before the widespread use of coke as a fuel. Since northeastern Pennsylvania was a rich source of anthracite coal, anthracite-fired furnaces using locally available iron ores were built throughout eastern Pennsylvania, helping to make the state a leader in iron production in the latter half of the 19th century. Lancaster County also became a leader in pig iron production during this time, with the river towns' complex of furnaces contributing significantly to its output.
Changes in the new century
By 1900, the town’s population had grown to over 12,000, with a 50% increase from 1880 to 1900. Some of the items produced by its industries were silk goods, lace, pipe, laundry machinery, stoves, iron toys, flour, lumber, and wagons. By this time Wright’s Ferry had ceased its operations, having been supplanted by rail and bridge traffic.
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.
The start of the 20th century brought economic challenge to Columbia as local industries declined. The lumber industry eventually disappeared as surrounding woodlands became depleted. As Chestnut Hill iron ores became scarce as well, the iron furnaces shut down. Eventually, the steel rolling mills also ceased operation. In 1906, the Pennsylvania Railroad opened a new facility in Enola, across the river from Harrisburg, which decreased the significance of Columbia’s railroad. By 1920, the population had dropped over 10% to 10,836.
The Great Depression accelerated Columbia’s economic slide. The Pennsylvania Railroad’s service to the north and the south was eliminated. World War II increased employment, but did not bring long-term prosperity to the borough.
By 1960, population had returned to its 1900 level. In 1965 a detailed study of Columbia’s basic strengths and weaknesses was released, but its suggestions went mostly unheeded. The Wright's Ferry Bridge, which opened in 1972, only served to divert traffic around Columbia. The growth and prosperity experienced in some Lancaster County towns bypassed Columbia for the remainder of the 20th century.
Although the United States Census Bureau reported that as of the last year of the 20th century, the population of Columbia had been only 10,311 people, by 2010 this figure had grown to 10,400. The Susquehanna River flows past the Borough of Columbia into the Chesapeake Bay. The city of Lancaster is the county seat.
Museums and Historic Sites
For over half a century, Columbia has been home to the headquarters of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors (NAWCC), whose campus on Poplar Street includes a clock tower, clock museum, library, research center, and "School of Horology," for training professional clock and watch repairers.
Other notable sites