A long the banks of the Susquehanna River lies the quaint town of Columbia. The town’s classic charm continues to emanate from the historic architecture throughout. Columbia is experiencing an exciting renaissance with riverside development, streetscape improvements and an influx of trendy eateries and businesses, bringing the urban and natural environments together to create a truly unique destination. Still, the grand history of this river town may come as a surprise.
Did you know that Columbia almost became our nation’s capital? Did you know that the course of the civil war was altered in Columbia? Did you know that Columbia is considered the birthplace of the Underground Railroad? In Columbia’s humble roots lies the backdrop to some of our nation’s watershed historical moments.
The area now known as Columbia was first settled by Quaker John Wright in 1726. The settlement was called Wright’s Ferry after the successful ferry business established by its founder. With its strategic location along the Susquehanna River, Wright’s Ferry soon became a transportation hub between Philadelphia, Lancaster, York, Harrisburg and eventually Pittsburgh. By 1788 Wright’s Ferry was renamed Columbia after Christopher Columbus. Due to its favorable location, Columbia was considered a possibility for our new nation’s capital the following year. Washington, DC was chosen by a mere two votes. The small town prospered throughout the nineteenth century and by 1814, the first bridge across the Susquehanna River was completed. A canal terminal and railroad connection soon followed.
After a former slave was kidnapped in 1804, Columbia remained true to its Quaker roots and joined the effort to aid runaway slaves. John Wright’s great grandson William is said to have used the Wright’s Ferry Mansion as the first stop in the Underground Railroad. The mansion is now a preserved museum and is open May through October. Columbia was the ideal location because of its proximity to the Maryland border and access to the bridge crossing the Susquehanna.
Years later the bridge would again shape the course of American history. As Confederate troops were overtaking York, Union soldiers burned the bridge at Wright’s Ferry and prevented the Civil War from reaching Lancaster. Columbia continued to be an economic juggernaut throughout the Industrial Revolution. At its height, Columbia was the home to thirteen iron blast furnaces, textile mills and a lumber industry. Columbia’s economic prosperity ended when its iron and lumber resources were exhausted.
Today, Columbia is experiencing a renaissance with the arrival of cafes, galleries, brew pubs and soon a new hotel development on the Susquehanna. Voted one of the 20 Best Small Town to Visit by Smithsonian Magazine in 2014, Columbia is also home to almost a dozen antique consignment shops and dealers as well as the historic Columbia Market House which dates back to 1869. A re-opening of this grand space is planned for later this year. History is also meticulously documented at the National Watch and Clock Museum, the First National Bank Museum and the Columbia Museum of History.
With an exceptional location on the eastern shore of the Susquehanna, Columbia has also become a hot spot for land and water recreation. The Columbia Crossing River Trails Center, located in Columbia River Park now offers a boat and paddle craft launch as well as seasonal canoe, kayak and bike rentals. Get your walking shoes on and hit the Northwest Lancaster County River Trail. Voted Best of Lancaster, this trail begins at the Columbia Crossing Trailhead, extends 14 miles north through Chickies Rock County Park alongside the town of Marietta, through Riverfront Park and continues west to Bainbridge. You can enjoy hiking, biking, picnicking, boating, canoeing and kayaking along this riverside stretch.
The picturesque Veterans Memorial Bridge between Columbia and Wrightsville not only provides a stunning backdrop, but it is also host to the Annual Bridge Bust. This popular street fair is held on the 1.25 mile span every October and is chock full of vendors offering arts, crafts, food and other unique wares.
A revitalized Columbia awaits you. Grab a bite, coffee or brew, shop the markets, visit museums and just enjoy the history that surrounds you. But, don’t forget dessert! Invent your own ice cream flavor at the Turkey Hill Experience while learning the history of this iconic Lancaster County dairy. Whether you are looking for fun for the entire family or an intimate excursion for two, you are bound to find it in historic Columbia.