The History of Columbia Borough as recorded in the ‘1875 Historical Atlas of Lancaster County’

Township Tuesday

Welcome to Township Tuesday, where we will examine the history of different Lancaster County townships each week. This week instead of a township, a borough: Columbia Borough as recorded in the 1875 Historical Atlas of Lancaster County. Famous cartographer and atlas maker Major L. H. Everts of Geneva, Illinois, compiled the 1875 Atlas. Click here to read more about the Atlas and Everts. A few minor edits have been made, mostly for readability, plus adding additional images from sources outside of the 1875 Atlas. 

Columbia Borough

1864 map of the Borough of Columbia.

In the summer of 1726, three prominent Quakers came from Chester with their families to the Susquehanna River and settled there. Robert Barber, who first came in the spring of that year, and selected one thousand acres of land, was born in Yorkshire, England, about the year 1693. His uncle, Robert Barber, brought him to this country, where he was apprenticed as a cordwainer (shoemaker who makes new shoes from new leather). His uncle died in 1708, leaving his nephew, Robert, considerable property in Chester and its vicinity. He followed the sea for several years and had been a prisoner in France. In 1721 he was elected Coroner of Chester County. In 1725 he was one of the Assessors for that county and became familiar with the large settlements in Conestoga and Donegal Townships, and no doubt had heard depicted in glowing terms the magnificent country bordering upon the Susquehanna River. He determined, together with his other two friends, to penetrate the wilderness and make his home there.

John Wright was born in Lancashire, England, in the year 1667 and came to Chester in 1714, where he opened a store. He was a public speaker in the Society of Friends, and his commanding talents and integrity brought him into notice at once. He was elected a member of the Assembly in 1720 and served several years thereafter as a magistrate for Chester County.

Samuel Blunston, the youngest of the three, was the son of John Blunston, who came over with William Penn in 1683 and settled on Darby Creek in Chester County. Samuel was born near Darby Mills in 1695.

Blunston took up five hundred acres of the tract extending from the hill back of St. Charles Furnace to Walnut Street. Wright took two hundred and fifty acres extending from the former’s land to Shawnee Run on the south. Robert Barber took the land between Shawnee Run and the run which empties into the river at Truscott & Co.’s oil works. This was the most desirable tract, as it was bounded on the north and south side by a running stream of water and covered by a large growth of very fine timber, such as walnut, hickory, and oak. Blunston built his house upon the site of the elegant mansion of Samuel B. Heise on Second Street. John Wright built his, which was torn down in 1874, upon the site of the new brick dwellings just completed (1876) by Abraham Bruner, on Second Street, between Cherry and Union Streets. Robert Barber built a few yards from the present brick mansion on M. M. Strickler’s farm.

1899 map of West Hempfield Township.

His house stood in the midst of large timber. He built a sawmill at the run south of his house and between Grubb’s and Kauffman’s stone quarries. Twenty years later, little progress had been made in clearing the timber, with six acres of wood to one of cleared land. John Wright was appointed magistrate for Conestoga Township, which extended to Chiques Creek before the organization of the County. Robert Barber was elected the first Sheriff in 1729 and erected a log prison north of his house, where the garden of Mr. Strickler is, just across the road from his mansion on his farm. John Wright was selected as one of the commissioners to run the dividing line between Chester and this County and to select a place for the County seat. Mr. Barber anticipated the location of the County seat upon his plantation but was disappointed, as were the descendants of these pioneers sixty years later when the nation’s capital was about to be permanently located.

John Wright died in 1751, aged eighty-four years, leaving five children surviving him, Susannah, the oldest and a remarkable lady in her time; Patience, Elizabeth, John, and James, the youngest. Susannah was never married. Mr. Blunston gave her a life estate in his large property, and she removed to his dwelling after his death in September 1746, and James built the present stone mansion on Second Street, belonging to the estate of John L. Wright, deceased, in 1740. John Wright willed to his daughter Susannah one hundred and ten acres of land, which she willed to Samuel Wright, son of James Wright, in 1785. In 1787, Samuel Wright laid out the town of Columbia—what is now known to the citizens as ” Old Columbia”—upon this tract and sold the lots by lottery.

For more than fifty years, the place had been known as “Wright’s Ferry” and was known as well in England as in this country. In 1780, when the location of the permanent seat of government was under discussion in Congress, Colonel Thomas Hartley, a distinguished officer of the Revolution, who resided in York Borough, in most eloquent terms, advocated Wright’s Ferry as the best place and asserted that the “settlements in the neighborhood of Wright’s Ferry were as thickly inhabited as any part of the country in North America. As to the quality of the soil, it was inferior to none in the world.” Although it was fixed as the seat, the vote was reconsidered, and, through a corrupt combination, it was defeated by one vote only.

Columbia, the second town in population, and the first in point of importance in the manufacture of iron, in the County and having but few equals in the State, is situated upon the left bank of the Susquehanna River, twenty-nine miles below Harrisburg, ten miles west of Lancaster City. A portion of the town occupies the slope of a hill that rises gently from the river, and until within a few years, the business portion of the place laid along its bank, and before the onward march of the steam carriage, it was the most desirable place for private residences, where their owners could stand in front of their dwellings and behold the scenery of the hills in the vicinity. The magnificent river of more than a mile in breadth flowing majestically in front, dotted with rocks and islands, and spanned by a noble bridge of a mile and one-eighth in length, presented one of the finest landscape views in Pennsylvania. No wonder the spot attracted so many substantial men from the eastern portion of the State, who flocked here, built houses, and went into business.

The shore soon became dotted with dwellings, stores, and warehouses filled with grain and produce, and the shore was lined with lumber. The town spread and grew rapidly until checked by the collapse in business which followed the wild speculations at the close of the war in 1816.

The first settlers being Quakers, held their meetings in a log building that stood in the vicinity of the spot where Union Street enters the Lancaster Turnpike. As was their custom, they had no regular minister but depended upon Friends who traveled from place to place and preached in private dwellings and plain log meeting houses. Many years after the settlement was made, a brick meeting house was erected on Cherry Street, between Third and Fourth Streets, which was filled with Quakers when their meetings were held; but now, alas, it is deserted, the descendants of the early settlers having departed from the simple faith of their fathers. Denominations of other faiths held their meetings in school-houses until 1811 when the Presbyterians erected the brick church at the corner of Fourth and Locust Streets, their first pastor being Rev. Stephen Boyer, who remained until 1830 when he removed to York and established an Academy. He was followed by Revs. Symes, Dunlap, Owen, Erskine, Grimes, Brown, Witherow, and McCoy.

A few years later, the German Reformers erected a brick church on Walnut Street, which was torn down several years ago and rebuilt.

The Methodists worshiped at private dwellings until 1825 when they erected a small frame church in the alley between Cherry and Union Streets and Fourth and Fifth Streets. In 1830 they built a brick church at the corner of Cherry and Third Streets, which was burned down in 1852. The society grew rapidly and out-numbered other denominations. They built a much larger church upon the corner of Second and Cherry Streets, which is filled every Sabbath. The names of their preachers are as follows and in regular order as to time: Miller, Tibbels, Reed, Dr. Hodson, Wm. Roberts, Elijah Miller, James Cunningham, James HI. McFarland, Joshua Humpfries, Gardner, Wm. H. Elliott, Stephen Townsend, Wm. Barnes, Wm. Urie, Wm. Bishop, Joseph Mason, Wm. Cooper, J. W. McCaskey, Henry Callaway, Wm. Barnes, James Z. Ashton, J. Aspril, J. Maddox, Wm. Major, Henry C. Smith, R. J. Carson, and Dickerson.

The Catholics erected St. Peter’s Church, at the corner of Union and Second Streets, in 1828, which has been enlarged and scarcely holds the increasing numbers of English-speaking Catholics. Rev. J. J. Russel presides over them, assisted by Rev. A. J. O’Brien. The German Catholics have a larger brick church on Cherry Street between Fourth and Fifth Streets, to which is attached a convent and private school, presided over by several “sisters.” Rev. Wm. Peeper is their pastor. There is a profitable and rich building association connected with or under. the auspices of each of those institutions, although there are many members who do not belong to the Catholic Church.

The Lutherans have a fine brick church on Second Street between Locust and Third Streets, erected twenty-two years ago.

The Evangelical Lutheran congregation has a brick church at the corner of Third and Cherry Streets, built fifteen years ago. The United Brethren have a brick church at the corner of Third and Perry Street. The German Lutheran congregation divided a few years ago, and another brick church was erected on Locust near Sixth Street. After the large influx of emancipated slaves from Virginia, in 1819-20, they erected a Baptist and Methodist church.

The Baptists have ceased to exist as a society, and the Methodists have erected a new and much larger brick church on Fifth Street between Union and Perry Streets. A public schoolhouse was erected, in 1806, on Third Street, where the market-house stands. It was prosperous and flourished for many years as a school and lyceum.

1864 map of West Hempfield Township

In 1811 a market-house was erected at the corner of Locust and Third Streets. The lower end was plastered, boarded up, and used for a school room, town meetings, and general elections. An addition was built to the market-house a few years later, and in 1828-29 the first town hall was erected. It was a two-story brick building, forty by fifty feet, surmounted by a steeple, in which was a clock. The building was used for school purposes and town meetings. It cost three thousand dollars. It was torn down in 1873 to make room for the magnificent opera house completed in May 1875.

This building is seventy-five feet front on Third Street and one hundred and twenty feet on Locust Street and cost one hundred thousand dollars. The main auditorium will seat two thousand people. The stage scenery, frescoing, and all the accompaniments of a first-class opera house, have not been neglected. There is a clock in the tower that surmounts the edifice, which is lighted up at night, and the face and dial can be seen from every part of the town. The first story is taken up with storerooms; in the rear, a portion of the space is devoted to market purposes. The whole building is heated with steam. A few years before its erection, a market-house, eighty by one hundred and twenty feet, was built along the alley and adjoining it. The annual income from renting market stalls and storerooms rose to eight thousand dollars.

On February 25, 1814, the borough was incorporated, with a population of 1,500.

The same year several spirited citizens formed a company and erected a bridge across the river at the cost of $231,771: the State being a stockholder to the amount of $90,000. The whole capital of the company was $419,400, of which a portion was employed in banking, the institution being known as the “Columbia Bank and Bridge Company.” When this bridge was erected, the science of bridge-building in this country was very far behind what it is today. The bridge was one mile and one-eighth in length, having fifty-six piers. It was not covered with a roof for several years. In February 1832, it was carried away by an ice freshet. It stood one-fourth of a mile farther up the river than the present one.

A new bridge upon the Burr plan was erected, in 1833-34, at half of the cost of the old bridge. It had but half the number of piers and was broader than the old one. It was burned down on June 28, 1863, to prevent the Rebel army from crossing, there being several thousand soldiers advancing from York, who arrived in Wrightsville just too late to get across the river. The present bridge was erected by a company that purchased the franchises of the old one, in the interest of the Pennsylvania Central Railroad Company, at the cost of $400,000.

From an authentic Civil War wood engraving. Original sketch by Albert Berghaus.

A fire company was organized in 1796.

In 1825 water was introduced into the town through earthen pipes from the springs in Lochard’s and Detwiler’s meadows. A reservoir was built, but the affair proved imperfect, and wooden ones supplemented the old pipes, and after some years, iron pipes were introduced. Some fifteen years ago, Colonel Samuel Shock, and a few other energetic businessmen, got control of the concern and at once proceeded to improve it. They succeeded in bringing the town’s waterworks up to their present value.

Columbia was the third or fourth town in the State where water was introduced through pipes and reservoirs.

Gas was introduced in 1850, and after some unsuccessful attempts, the introduction was finally perfected.

Samuel Wright, the founder of the town, left several hundred yards of ground along the river shore for the public use of the inhabitants of ” Old Columbia.” Its rents and revenues were, at times, very large, but bad management prevented the fund from accumulating as fast as it might have done. From that fund, several acres of ground were purchased above Fifth Street twenty years ago, and a large brick academy was erected at the cost of fifteen thousand dollars.

The public schools are held in a single large three-story brick building on Cherry Street, which can accommodate several hundred children. On the third story is a public ball, which can seat several hundred people, and on the same floor is a library called the ” Shock Library” because he endowed it handsomely and was its founder.

The same generous and large-hearted citizen has just completed a school on Fifth Street, which is to be connected with and under the charge of the Presbyterian Church.

There is a school building on Fifth Street where colored children are taught separately.

In 1832 the great inland system of public improvement, which carried the produce of the West through the length of the State along an artificial stream of water, was finished and had its terminus here. The Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad, eighty-one miles in length, was finished in 1834 and had its terminus here, entering the town through an inclined plane. A few years later, a railroad was built to Baltimore by way of York, and a canal was erected on the west side of the river to tidewater in 1839. The river is dammed just below the town, and adding another channel by which the rich produce seeking a granary here might find its way to market. Twelve years ago, another iron artery was built, connecting Reading with Columbia; and in 1875, a railroad is about to be completed from Columbia to Port Deposit.

The town grew, and its business increased until it attained immense proportions.

In 1846 the Cohin Brothers erected a small blast furnace at “Shawnee Run,” which was followed, in 1851, by the erection of a rolling mill a short distance farther down the stream. The Cohins failing, the furnace got into the hands of New York capitalists who owned an immense bed of iron ore on Chestnut Hill, three miles from the town. They erected another furnace of double the capacity of the old one, and have made the property worth a million dollars. The title of the company is “Chestnut Hill Iron-Ore Company.” C.J. Nourse, the gentlemanly and able manager, has entire control of the works, and to him, the credit is due, in a great measure, for their success.

In 1851, Clement Grubb & Brother built the St. Charles Furnace on the northern side of the town. It is now owned by Clement Grubb and Charles B., his son. Under their ownership, it has been much enlarged and improved. They own a furnace one mile farther up the river. For more than one hundred and forty years, the family has been among the leading iron masters in the State.

Inside of St. Charles Furnace
Inside of St. Charles Furnace today.

The “Susquehanna Rolling Mill” on Front Street was erected twelve years ago and has been much enlarged since and, under the superb management of William Patten, has proved a great success.

George Bogle, President of the “Columbia National Bank,” owns a grist mill, and manufactures flour, at the mouth of Shawnee Run.

A few yards above it, Samuel Blunston built a grist and corn mill about the year 1740. He willed it to James Wright, who was deputed to supply Braddock’s army with flour, which was ground at this little mill and sent to Raystown on pack horses.

From a small beginning, in 1800, Columbia grew to be one of the country’s largest lumber markets in fifty years, with more than sixty million feet piled annually along the shore. The growing scarcity of timber, and increased facilities for transporting lumber at all seasons of the year from the place where it is manufactured, have run the business down very much. Among the large dealers are Abraham Bruner, F. S. Bletz. W. Righter’s Sons, J. Backman & Dehuff, and others.

Columbia contains about 7,000 inhabitants; many taxables, 2,392; a value of real estate, $3,127,538. The borough, at the time of its incorporation, in 1814, embraced a tract of nearly a square mile. These limits have been extended from time to time until its boundaries now are at least two miles square.

The list of public buildings includes a fine opera house, market arcade; eleven churches, viz., one Presbyterian, one Methodist Episcopal, one English and two German Lutheran, one Reformed, two Roman Catholic (English and German), one United Brethren, one Friends’ Meeting-house, and one African Methodist Episcopal Church (most of the churches have parsonages attached); a high school, and an academy. It contains three national banks and two banking houses of a private character,* a public library, five building associations, two fire companies (with I steamers), three iron companies and three furnaces, two rolling mills, five separate furnaces, Old Columbia Public Ground Company, Odd-Fellows’ Hall Association, Mount Bethel Cemetery Company, four turnpike companies, and Columbia Water Company.

The secret and benevolent societies are Columbia Lodge, No. 286, A. Y. M.; Corinthian H. R. Arch Chapter, No. 224; Cyrene Commandery, No. 34, Masonic Knights Templar; Red Rose Conclave, No. 59, of the Masonic Order of the Knights of Rome and of the Red Cross of Constantine; Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Holy Order of St. John; Osceola Tribe, No. 11, Improved Order of Red Men; Riverside Council, No. 160, United American Mechanics; Shawnee Council, No. 34, Junior United American Mechanics; Susquehanna Lodge, No. 80, Independent Order of Odd-Fellows; Shawnee Encampment, No. 23; St. Patrick’s Temperance Society; Sodality of B. V. M.; Sodality of Angels, and the societies of St. Peter, St. Joseph, and St. Alders.

Among the manufacturing enterprises are three planing mills, two grist, two sawmills, three machine shops, two round-houses (capacity, sixty-six engines), two foundries, one tannery, five cigar manufactories, including the Pennsylvania Cigar Emporium of Mr. S. G. Sheaffer, an establishment well worthy the patronage of retail dealers generally; three turning establishments, four cabinet manufactories, and others too multiform for particularization.

There are eight dry goods stores, some of them occupying buildings and having stock equal to the cities; six hardware stores, six green groceries, six hardware establishments, four drug stores, five jewelry stores, six merchant tailors, twenty-six grocery and queensware (a type of fine, cream-colored Wedgwood pottery) stores, and the usual number of boot and shoe, millinery, and other stores. There are many hotels and restaurants, including many first-class places of entertainment for “man and beast.” There are three Justices of the Peace, the customary municipal (borough) officers, and many legal, medical, and other professional men. There are three weekly newspapers and job printing offices.

Columbia is today one of the most prosperous towns in the State, and, with the increasing exertion of her energetic and enterprising businessmen, she will ere long become one of the finest cities on the Susquehanna.

The town is growing rapidly; new streets are being extended, and scores of fine brick dwellings are rising.

Click here to read additional entries from the 1875 Historical Atlas of Lancaster County.


Here’s your chance to own a copy of the 1899 map of West Hempfield Township created from a 600 dpi scan of plate 62 from the 1899 Atlas of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Size: 18″ x 24″. Other options include maps of West Hempfield and the Borough of Columbia from 1864. Available in sizes: 16″x16″ and 18″x18″.

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Meet Columbia’s Little Bigfoot—the Albatwitch

In the area of Chickies Rock near the ancient Susquehanna River, stories of a 4-foot-tall hairy ape-man fond of apples have existed since Native Americans dominated the region. As recently as 2020, people have seen the hairy beast. Click the link to learn about Columbia’s little bigfoot—the Albatwitch.

Earliest known photo of the Wrightsville and Columbia Bridge

This is the earliest known photograph of the massive covered bridge that once spanned the Susquehanna River between Wrightsville and Columbia. It was taken by Charles Himes, an amateur photographer in the early 1860s. Click the link to learn more about this famous bridge.

How Columbia and Millersville nearly became the county seat for Lancaster

Postlethwaite’s tavern along Long Lane near Rock Hill was Lancaster County’s first “courthouse” in 1729. The structure still stands today.

Lancaster County’s first courthouse was not at Penn Square. It wasn’t even in Lancaster City. Click here to read how Columbia and Millersville nearly became the county seat for Lancaster


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