A Brief History of Columbia, Pennsylvania USA

Columbia

Our heritage—our history—defines much of what Columbia is. We celebrate it. Even as we embrace the future, our past is always visible in our rearview mirror. Our ancestors were among those who helped sculpt our country, and we're proud of that. Yet, we're a welcoming town to those relocating here and who visit us. We strongly feel that heritage and invention make for a vibrant community.

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Petroglyphs on rocks in the Susquehanna River

Founding

Before our town was founded by John Wright and fellow Colonial English Quakers in 1726, the area was home to the Shawnee and Susquehannock natives. John Wright built a log cabin on land first granted to George Beale by William Penn in 1699. Along with John Wright, companions Robert Barber and Samuel Blunston began developing the area. A ferry was established and was, for many years, the sole option for crossing the river as more settlers began to move west. The house of Susanna Wright (John's daughter), built in 1738, still stands. Wright's Ferry crossed from present-day Wrightsville to Columbia. Indeed, Mark Twain (and many others) purchased a ticket to London there, using the canals along the river to emerge at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay where a ship was boarded to Europe.

Narrow Miss

In the spring of 1788, Samuel Wright (son of James and Rhoda Wright) had the area surveyed, formally plotting out the town. Wright and fellow citizens officially named the town Columbia in honor of the explorer. They'd hoped this would help influence the new U.S. Congress to select it as the nation's capital (a plan even George Washington favored). This was formally proposed in 1789. Unfortunately, a year later, Columbia fell one vote short of winning the status of the nation's new center of government. Later, Columbia also narrowly missed becoming the the capital of Pennsylvania, losing out to Harrisburg which was more geographically centered.

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Canals & piers left after the loss of the bridge.

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Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge, circa 1850

Peace & War

By the early 19th century, the Quakers become outnumbered by English Anglicans, Scots-Irish Presbyterians, German Lutherans, descendants of French Huguenots, and freed African slaves. In 1814, Columbia was formally incorporated as a borough. That same year, the world's longest covered bridge was built across the mile-wide Susquehanna River, linking Columbia to Wrightsville. It handled traffic for 18 years when it was destroyed by high water and ice in 1832. In its place was built a Pennsylvania Railroad bridge two years later. In 1863, at the height of the American Civil War, people of the town got word that the Confederates' General Robert E. Lee was planning to cross the bridge and eventually attack Harrisburg. Columbia responded by clandestinely burning the bridge down, thwarting Lee's plans, in turn, causing Lee to move west. That change of plans came to a head at the Battle of Gettysburg. 

Creative Legacy

Despite the diminutive size, Columbia has been blessed with a legacy of creative citizenry. Susanna Wright (1697-1784) was an ardent experimenter of plant life and silk production. Her skillful correspondence gained her the friendship of many intellectuals of the day, including Benjamin Franklin. Dr. Benjamin Rush once said, "the famous Suzy Wright, a lady who has been celebrated for her wit, good sense, and valuable improvements of mind." Lloyd Mifflin (1845-1921) was another talent of note. He was the son of portrait and miniature painter, John Houston Mifflin, with whom he trained. This creative polymath painted and was an early adopter of photography.  His poetry earned him the unofficial title of "America's greatest sonneteer." Reginald Wright Kauffman (1877-1959) wrote numerous works of fiction and eventually moved into early Hollywood screenplays. Creative writing from Columbia lives on even today. Dean Young (born 1955) is a highly regarded poet and is chair of poetry at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2005.

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Lloyd Mifflin (early photographic self-portait)