Columbia, Pennsylvania

This article is about the borough in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. For other uses, see Columbia, Pennsylvania (disambiguation).
Borough of Columbia

Location of Columbia in Lancaster County
Borough of Columbia

Location of Columbia in Pennsylvania

Coordinates: 40°01′59″N 76°29′48″W / 40.03306°N 76.49667°W / 40.03306; -76.49667Coordinates: 40°01′59″N 76°29′48″W / 40.03306°N 76.49667°W / 40.03306; -76.49667
Country United States
State Pennsylvania
County Lancaster
  Total 2.7 sq mi (7 km2)
  Land 2.4 sq mi (6 km2)
  Water 0.3 sq mi (0.8 km2)
Elevation 361 ft (110 m)
Population (2010)
  Total 10,400
  Density 3,900/sq mi (1,500/km2)
Time zone EST (UTC-5)
  Summer (DST) EDT (UTC-4)
ZIP code 17512
Area code(s) 717

Columbia, formerly Wright's Ferry, is a borough (town) 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.


Downtown Columbia.

18th century

Early history

Main article: Susquehannock people

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 claiming at least hunting lands as far south as Maryland and Northern Virginia.[1] Captain John Smith reported on the Susquehannock in glowing superlatives when a traveling group visited Jamestown, Virginia;[1] he estimated their numbers to be about 2,000 in the early 1600s. The French ran across them in the area around Buffalo, apparently visiting the Wenro, and suggesting their numbers were far greater. The Province of Maryland fought a declared war for nearly a decade, signing a peace in 1632, against the Susquehannock Confederation who were allied to New Sweden and furnishing fire arms to the Susquehannocks in exchange for furs.[1] The American Heritage Book of Indians reports the tribe occupied the entire Susquehanna Drainage Basin[1] from the divide with the Mohawk River in lower New York State and part of the west side of the Chesapeake Bay in the Province of Virginia, while noting the confederation numbered between 10-20,000 in the mid-1660s when they came close to wiping out two Nations of the Iroquois.[1] An virulent epidemic struck the Susquehannock towns during 1668 or 1669 and is believed[1] to have lasted or recurred or morphed to plagues of other disease possibly killing up to 90% of the Amerindian nations people. By 1671-1672 they were beset on all sides[1]with attacks from colonial settlers, raids from the weakened Iroquois and the long subjugated Lenape band occupying the Poconos and Lehigh Valley. In that decade, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New York all claimed the Susquehannock lands of the Wyoming Valley, where the remnants of the nation were to recoil into a few scant under populated towns. In 1678, the Governor of New York would sign a treaty with the League of the Iroquois requiring them to take in the Susquehannocks. The Iroquoian cultures universally supporting adoption, absorbed the people. Small bands moved west across the Susquehanna to new villages such as Conestoga Town and some are believed to have trekked through the gaps of the Allegheny to the virtually empty lands beyond the Alleghenies, perhaps mingling there with other Iroquoian peoples such as the Seneca, Wenro and Erie peoples forming the new clans and towns as the (new) Mingo people whose small bands known to be present in Western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio in the early 1800s.[1]

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. Susanna Wright later built Wright's Ferry Mansion, the oldest existing house in Columbia, dating 1738. She live in this house with her brother James, and his wife Rhoda, and possibly the first of their many children. The home is open for tours as a house museum and is located 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.”

Wright's Ferry

Main article: 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.

Cresap's War

Main article: Cresap's War

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.

Becoming Columbia

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;[2] 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; Harrisburg was chosen instead, being closer to the state’s geographical center.

19th century

Expansion, construction, and transportation

Columbia Market House

English Anglicans, Scots-Irish Presbyterians, freed African slaves, German Lutherans, and descendants of French Huguenots came to outnumber the first Quaker settlers within a generation.

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 5,690 feet (1,730 m) long and 30 feet (9.1 m) 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.

Public Works

In February 1826, the Pennsylvania state legislature approved the package of legislation known as the Main Line of Public Works with the goal of connecting the width and breadth of Pennsylvania by the best and most reliable transportation known, water transport. The project started with the harder parts up the Juniata River and over the mountains being funded first. $300,000 in the funding was for the construction of a navigation that would be called the Pennsylvania Canal along the Susquehanna’s eastern shore to bypass rapids and shallows and make the river navigable anywhere along its route. Also, as conceived, another 82 mile canal would be dug from the terminus in Columbia to connect towns to the east with a terminus on the Delaware River at Philadelphia.

Across the Alleghenies, another canal would connect the Allegheny Portage Railroad crossing the mountains) to the Ohio River and the Mississippi River, ensuring the Port of Philadelphia would dominate inland trade and manufacturing in the exploding trans-Appalachian territories. It was a brave, far looking, ambitious vision. Like the Erie Canal which was completed in 1825, the very year the legislation package came to be filed, the overall scheme was envisioned when water transport was the fastest means of travel over any long distance, was the best way to ship heavy bulk goods or cumbersome loadsand was before Railways came to the public eye and their technology had been refined enough to become working propositions. In 1836 there were probably less than siz railways in the world.

In that reality, the Navigations were finally begun in 1832 after several delays, the work went quickly and Pennsylvania Canal went into operation in 1833. It started at Columbia, stretching 40 miles (64 km) north to the junction of the Juniata River. The intent was that goods and travelers could use the canal system to go west from Columbia to Pittsburgh, Lake Erie, Ohio and [present-day] West Virginia along the Juniata Division, or by taking the Main Susquehanna northwards (Northern Division) reach north Central Pennsylvania and into lower New York State.

When the reality met conception the plan broke. Engineering studies found no reasonably feasible way to provide enough water to keep an 82-mile canal to Philadelphia wet, much less support lock operations. When that was reported, the Pennsylvania Canal Commission came up with a new plan, one using the right of way authorized to build one of these newfangled railways that were making news. Their solution was the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad, one of the first common carrier commercial railways to operate in the United States. Double-tracked, it utilized two inclined plane cable railways at steep rises near either end, and except for bypasses of that older technology unneeded with more powerful locomotives, the P&CR trackage is still in use today, as it passed to the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1857, along with most of the Pennsylvania Canal.

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.”[3]

Any idealistic view of abolition in Columbia is surely tested, however, by the occurrence of a significant race riot in 1834. The riot erupted in August of that year [4] when white workers revolted against working alongside Black freedmen. Citing a document drafted by the rioters themselves, historian David Roediger explains that typical of other race riots of the period, white rioters feared "a plot by employers and abolitionists to open new trades to Blacks and 'to break down the distinctive barrier between the colors that the poor whites may gradually sink into the degraded condition of the Negroes - that, like them, they may be slaves and tools'." [5] The Rioters' declaration called for 'colored freeholders' to be "singled out for removal from the Borough".[6] The riot resulted in a large number of African American residents being forced from their homes and their property destroyed.[7]

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.

Postwar growth

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 140-foot (43 m)-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.

Flourishing industry

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.

20th century

Columbia, about 1905

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.

Economic decline

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.

21st 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.


Historical population
Census Pop.
Est. 201510,388[8]−0.1%

As of the census[11] of 2000, there were 10,311 people, 4,287 households, and 2,589 families residing in the borough. The population density was 4,227.8 people per square mile (1,631.6/km²). There were 4,595 housing units at an average density of 1,884.1 per square mile (727.1/km²). The racial makeup of the borough was 91.34% White, 4.42% Black or African American, 0.18% Native American, 0.41% Asian, 0.05% Pacific Islander, 1.70% from other races, and 1.90% from two or more races. 4.49% of the population were Hispanic or Latino of any race.

There were 4,287 households, out of which 28.3% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 41.5% were married couples living together, 19.2% had a female householder with no husband present, and 39.6% were non-families. 33.7% of all households were made up of individuals, and 16.6% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.35 and the average family size was 3.01.

In the borough the population was spread out, with 24.3% under the age of 18, 8.7% from 18 to 24, 29.2% from 25 to 44, 20.5% from 45 to 64, and 17.2% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 37 years. For every 100 females there were 89.3 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 85.5 males.

The median income for a household in the borough was $32,385, and the median income for a family was $26,309. Males had a median income of $27,528 versus $22,748 for females. The per capita income for the borough was $14,626. About 11.5% of families and 11.9% of the population were below the poverty line, including 18.3% of those under age 18 and 10.6% of those age 65 or over.

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.

Wright's Ferry Mansion

Other notable sites


Schools in Columbia are part of the Columbia Borough School District.




Notable people

See also



  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Editor: Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., by The editors of American Heritage Magazine (1961). "The American Heritage Book of Indians". In pages 188-219. ,. American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc. LCCN 61-14871.
  2. Sheldon, 2006, p. 38.
  3. Sheldon, 2006, p.53.
  4. Worner, W.F. (2007). The Columbia Race Riots, p. 177
  5. Roediger, D. (2007). The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. London: Verso Books. p. 58
  6. ibid
  7. Worner (2007), p. 181
  8. "Annual Estimates of the Resident Population for Incorporated Places: April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2015". Retrieved July 2, 2016.
  9. "Number of Inhabitants: Pennsylvania" (PDF). 18th Census of the United States. U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved 22 November 2013.
  10. "Pennsylvania: Population and Housing Unit Counts" (PDF). U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved 22 November 2013.
  11. 1 2 "American FactFinder". United States Census Bureau. Archived from the original on September 11, 2013. Retrieved 2008-01-31.
  12. "Annual Estimates of the Resident Population". U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved 22 November 2013.
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