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Columbia, Pennsylvania USA

Populated by Susquehannocks and Shawnee ± 1580.

Settled by Colonial English Quakers in 1726.

River ferry began in 1730.

Surveyed for building lots in 1788.

Incorporated in 1814.

Formerly known as Wright's Ferry, Columbia is a borough in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, United States. The first settlement was founded in 1726 by Colonial English Quakers from Chester County led by entrepreneur and evangelist John Wright. The 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 just a few votes shy of becoming 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 and was once the terminus of the Pennsylvania Canal. Later, however, the Great Depression and 20th-century changes in economy and technology sent the borough into economic decline. It is notable today as the site of one of the world's few museums devoted entirely to horology, the National Watch and Clock Museum.

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. 

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, what is now the oldest existing house in Columbia, dating to 1738. She lived 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 the 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. 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.

In the spring of 1788, citizens named the town 'Columbia' in hopes of convincing the newly born Congress to select it as the nation's capital, a plan George Washington favored. When Congress finally got around to voting on the proposal in 1790, it fell one vote short. Later, Columbia narrowly missed becoming the state's capital. Harrisburg was chosen instead as it was closer to the center of the state. 

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. However, a plan was made to burn the bridge causing General Lee to the west. This ultimately created the conditions for the Battle of Gettysburg. 

Perhaps it's the DNA of Columbia's forefathers that their adventurous spirit and love of freedom created a desire to invent and create that has generated more artists, writers, and painters than a town so small can typically lay claim. That desire continues today.

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