Centrally located between the metropolitan areas of Lancaster, York, and Harrisburg, the Borough is physically and economically linked to the Lancaster and York urbanized areas. The main transportation links connecting Columbia Borough with other parts of Lancaster County include U.S. Route 30, and PA Routes 462 and 441. Route I-76 (the Pennsylvania Turnpike), I-83, U.S. Routes 30 and 222 and PA Routes 283 and 41 provide convenient access that links York and Lancaster Counties with Philadelphia, New York, Pittsburgh, Wilmington, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
The history of Columbia, Pennsylvania can be traced to pre-historic Native Americans occupied the land area of the Susquehanna River around what is today Columbia. The first European settlers in the area arrived in 1726. The families of three men, John Wright, Robert Barber and Samuel Blunston, acquired tracts of land and established permanent homes. John Wright developed a ferry business in 1730, carrying goods and people across the Susquehanna River. Because the ferry was located here, the name Wright’s Ferry was given to the settlement. Wright’s Ferry became well known throughout the middle Colonies.
In 1788, Samuel Wright, grandson of Wright’s Ferry founder, John Wright, laid out 160 lots in what is now the central section of the Borough. Samuel Wright called the Borough Columbia, naming it after Christopher Columbus. The growing importance of Columbia became evident in 1789 when the town narrowly missed being selected as the site of the nation’s capital by no more than a few votes. Later, Columbia was considered as the site for the capital of Pennsylvania; however, Harrisburg was chosen for the site of the capital because it was closer to the center of the State.
The 1800’s was a period of rapid growth and prosperity for Columbia. In 1814 the first bridge across the Susquehanna River, linking Columbia and Lancaster County to York County was completed. In 1833, the Borough became the terminal of the first link of the Pennsylvania Canal system. The first railroad officially opened in Columbia in 1834. By 1852 there was regular rail transportation from Columbia to Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Harrisburg. Columbia was the commercial center for the area situated halfway between the county seats of Lancaster and York.
Because of its strategic location for crossing the Susquehanna River; the access to a major rail yard, the gateway to Lancaster County and access to Harrisburg from the Eastside of the river; Columbia became a little known but major factor in the Civil War. Confederate General Gordon with the Georgia Brigade was ordered by Confederate General Robert E. Lee to cross the Susquehanna River to Columbia; to destroy the railroad yards; and to advance on the City of Lancaster. General Gordon was to place the City of Lancaster and predominately peaceful Amish farming area surrounding the city under contribution for the Confederate Army’s war supplies and to advance of Harrisburg to attack the capital from the Eastside of the river while Lee’s army advanced from the Westside. The Confederate Army had already burned Chambersburg to the ground for their refusal to surrender the city with their food supplies and other needed commodities for the war. With news from Chambersburg’s burning, York had surrendered, and the gateway to Lancaster and Harrisburg was open with the Columbia Bridge across the Susquehanna.
On June 28, 1863, the Union Army contingent quartered along the river, set fire to the Columbia River Bridge and prevented Confederate General Gordon from crossing the Susquehanna River and bringing the Civil War to Lancaster County Pennsylvania. With his route to Lancaster and Harrisburg blocked, Confederate General Gordon was the ordered by Confederate General Robert E. Lee to withdraw his troops to the little known crossroads of Gettysburg to rendezvous with Lee and to regroup with other contingents of the Confederate Army. Had the bridge not been burned, two opposing armies would never have met at Gettysburg where the course of the Civil War was determined and the foreshadowing of the war’s outcome could be seen.
During the latter part of the 19th Century in Columbia the railroad continued to expand and the discovery of iron ore deposits led to the beginning of the iron industry in Columbia. By 1887, there were thirteen blast furnaces operating within a three mile radius of town. Factories producing silk, textiles, stoves, baked goods and machinery were established in the Borough during the late 1800’s. Trolley service for the borough and the surrounding area was established in 1893. This allowed Columbia residents to take advantage of economic opportunities in Lancaster and the surrounding towns. During 1874 to 1875, a grand town hall was constructed. In addition to borough offices, council chambers, and numerous storerooms and market stalls, the town hall contained a huge second floor auditorium used as an opera house. A 140 foot bell tower topped the building. The clock could be seen from all over the borough and the bell’s musical tone could be heard throughout the surrounding countryside. Columbia Borough was the fashionable place to live. The prosperity during the nineteenth century resulted in a six-fold increase of the Borough’s population between 1830 and 1900; growing from 2,046 to 12,316 persons.
As the 20th century began, Columbia Borough entered a period of economic challenge. The lumber industry declined and then disappeared altogether as the surrounding woodlands were depleted. The iron furnaces shut down with the depletion of the Chestnut Hill iron ores. Eventually the steel rolling mills ceased operations. The increased use of the railroads, finally forced the river canal operations to cease in 1901. Then, in 1906, the Pennsylvania Railroad opened up a new yard in Enola across the river from Harrisburg decreasing the work force of Columbia railroad facilities. By 1920, the population had dropped by over 10% to 10,836.
The Great Depression accelerated an economic decline of Columbia. Rail passenger service was curtailed, eliminating jobs. The Pennsylvania Railroad’s service to the north and the south was eliminated. WW II brought increased employment, but did not sustain a long-term prosperity for the Borough. In 1947, fire destroyed the once grand Opera House. As the fire burned the Opera House, it seemed to take the past greatness of Columbia with it.
The 1960 population had returned to the 1900 levels. A detailed study of Columbia’s core strengths and weaknesses was prepared in 1965. While a few of the suggestions were implemented, most were not. As with many urban areas, most of the young people left the borough as they graduated from high school. Those that stayed in the area chose to live in the growing suburbs of Lancaster County. Columbia seemed to become more isolated from the rest of the county. The growth and prosperity experienced in Lancaster County and the surrounding townships, bypassed Columbia for the remainder of the 20th Century.
With the 21st Century, Columbia is now experiencing a resurgence of economic development and community revitalization that is projected to see the investment of private capital at a level of 10% a year in the total value of the community. This growth in private capital investment is a result of the renewed collaborative effort of the community’s leadership and the development community who see a community with incredible architectural beauty located on a beautiful river in an area that is located in one of the strongest economic engines in the State of Pennsylvania that still has available undervalued property for new investment. Columbia is again experiencing economic renewal and solid community growth.