Shown here is the earliest known photograph of the massive covered bridge that once spanned the Susquehanna River between Wrightsville and Columbia between 1834 and June 28, 1863, when citizens, under army orders, torched it during the Gettysburg Campaign.
The image, taken in the early 1860s, is credited to Charles Himes, an amateur photographer from New Oxford who traveled throughout Pennsylvania and New York taking nature photos. Many of these are in the collection of the Library of Congress.
The photo shows the addition to the south side of the bridge to allow teams of draft animals to pull canal boats from the Susquehanna & Tidewater Canal in Wrightsville across the river to the canal in Columbia.
Also included are some early sketches of this bridge, which at the time was the world’s longest. It was rebuilt in 1867-68 and then destroyed again, this time by a windstorm in 1896.
Burning of the Wrightsville and Columbia Bridge
By late June 1863, the Confederate Army had invaded Pennsylvania. After capturing York, the Rebels planned to take the state capital, Harrisburg and possibly Philadelphia. To get there, they would need to cross the Susquehanna River at Wrightsville.
On the Lancaster County side of the river, Pennsylvania militiamen from Columbia vowed to block the Confederate advance. Union troops retreating from York joined them, as did a company of African American militiamen, the first Black troops from Camp William Penn. In all, they mustered fewer than 1,500 men.
When Confederate Brigadier General John Brown Gordon arrived on June 28 with approximately 1,800 troops, the Federals waited in their entrenchments. The Rebels opened up with artillery fire, and the Union position rapidly became untenable. The Federals decided to retreat to Columbia and blow up a section of the over-mile-long bridge behind them, denying the Rebels access to Lancaster. The explosion failed to destroy the bridge, so the order to burn it was given.
As the Confederates surged forward, the bridge erupted in flames. Gordon’s men worked for hours to extinguish the blaze. They kept Wrightsville from going up in smoke, but the bridge, financed by the First National Bank of Columbia, was destroyed.
Gordon’s brigade was recalled to York the next day. The Pennsylvania militia had saved Lancaster and set the stage for the three-day Battle of Gettysburg that would soon begin on July 1.
This was the second bridge to cross the Susquehanna between Columbia and Wrightsville. The two-year construction project began in 1832 and was financed by the Columbia Bank and Bridge Company. It was built by James Moore and John Evans for $157,300. It opened to traffic on July 8, 1834. At the time, it was the longest covered bridge in the world, being over a mile long at 5,620 feet and sitting on 27 piers. It sat just north of the current Route 462 bridge. On the outside, two towpaths for moving canal boats were added in 1840. A double railroad track was added in 1850.
The piers of the bridge are still visible today just north of the Veterans Memorial Bridge.
View of the piers from the Lancaster County side of the Susquehanna River.
Susquehanna River Fun Facts
Here are some fun facts about Lancaster County’s greatest body of water: the Susquehanna River. Number 1: The Susquehanna is the longest river on the East Coast of the United States. The river begins life as an unassuming 50-foot wide creek at Ostego Lake near Cooperstown, New York. It eventually empties into the Chesapeake Bay at Havre de Grace, Maryland, having swelled in spots to wider than a mile. The river and its hundreds of tributaries drain 27,510 square miles, and, at the end of this 444-mile journey, it pumps 18 million gallons of water into Chesapeake per minute. Click the link to read all six!
Union forces burn Wrightsville Bridge to prevent invasion of Lancaster County
On June 28, 1863, Union forces burned the Wrightsville Bridge to stop the advancing Confederate Army. This action saved Lancaster County and set the stage for the three-day Battle of Gettysburg that would soon begin on July 1. Click the link to read more.
Haunted Lancaster: The Ghost of General Reynolds
As a brilliant military strategist, Reynolds was considered by both the Union and Confederate armies to be the best general in the North. His distinguished military career included the Battle of Chancellorsville, the second Battle of Bull Run, and the Battle of Gettysburg.
Just before Reynolds was shot through the neck by a Confederate sharpshooter while leading his men into battle, he said, “Forward men, forward, for God’s sake, and drive those fellows out of the woods!” Reynolds died instantly from the wound and was the highest ranking soldier on either side killed at Gettysburg.
However, Reynolds’ story doesn’t end with his death. Shortly before the battle, Reynolds had secretly engaged his longtime Catholic sweetheart, Katherine May Hewitt. The relationship was complicated by the fact that Reynolds was a Protestant. After a discreet courtship, they planned to marry upon his return from Gettysburg.
This is where things get interesting. If you feel a chill while walking on West King Street and notice a tall, handsome, oddly dressed man, there’s a good chance you just saw Reynolds’ ghost. His spirit is said to roam the street on his way to meet his fiancé just as he had promised he would. Click the link to read more.