Haunted Lancaster: How a doomed ferry crossing, dynamite, and grief lead to watery deaths on the Susquehanna

Wright’s Ferry

In 1726, the settlement of Columbia was founded by English Quakers from Chester County led by entrepreneur and evangelist John Wright. However, at the time it was named Wright’s Ferry.

Fun Fact: The name was changed to Columbia in a failed attempt to become the nation’s capital in 1789. The city fell one vote shy of securing the honor. More on that topic in a future post.   

In 1730, Wright was granted a patent to operate a ferry across the Susquehanna River. He also built a ferry house and a tavern on the eastern shore, north of Locust Street, on Front Street. The ferry itself consisted of two dugout canoes fastened together with carriage and wagon wheels.

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Traffic heading west from Lancaster, Philadelphia, and other nearby towns regularly traveled through Columbia as the ferry there was the best way (and for a time the only way) to cross the Susquehanna. As traffic flow increased, the ferry grew, to the point of including canoes, rafts, flatboats, and steamboats 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.

When cattle were moved, the canoeist guided a lead animal with a rope so that the others would follow. If the lead animal became confused and started swimming in circles, however, the other animals followed until they were tired and eventually drowned.

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By the early 1800s, several ferries ran on the Susquehanna between what is now Columbia and Wrightsville. At its peak, 15 or more different ferries crossed the Susquehanna River in various spots between York County and Lancaster County.

A Watery Death

According to legend, one ferry was operated by a father and son. One morning the ferry had an accident and the son was thrown into the water. An unusually strong current pulled the boy underwater and drowned him.

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His father tried in vain to recover the boy’s body, but it had become trapped in the rocks. Blinded by grief the man resolved to reclaim his son’s body no matter the cost. The father dynamited the rocks. The resulting explosion threw him high into the air. His body was never found.

However, the ghost of a man wearing period clothing has been seen wandering along the banks and shallow shores of the Susquehanna in Columbia. He always appears to be looking for something. Could it be the father’s ghost still searching for the body of his lost son?

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More Haunted Lancaster

You can read more about the things that go bump in the night at Chickies Rock here. If you have a ghost story you want to share as part of Haunted Lancaster, comment below or email me.

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