On this Day in History: Second bridge crossing the Susquehanna at Columbia opened to traffic in 1834

On this Day in History
On July 8, 1834, the Wrightsville and Columbia Bridge, the second bridge to cross the Susquehanna at Columbia, opened to traffic.

The image, taken in the early 1860s, is credited to Charles Himes.

Bridge Information

Financed by the Columbia Bank and Bridge Company for $157,300, the two-year construction project began in mid-1832. It replaced the first bridge that had been destroyed by ice, high water, and severe weather earlier that same year on February 5. The new bridge was built by James Moore and John Evans and 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.

The wood and stone structure had 27 piers, a carriageway, a walkway, and two towpaths to guide canal traffic across the river. Tolls were $1.00 for a wagon and six horses (equivalent to $27.14 in 2023) and 6 cents per pedestrian (equivalent to $1.63 in 2023). Much of the mostly oak timber used in its construction was salvaged from the previous bridge. Its roof was covered with shingles, its sides with weatherboard, and its interior was whitewashed.

The structure was modified six years later, in 1840, by the Canal Company at a cost of $40,000 concurrent with the construction of the Wrightsville Dam. This low-head dam was used to impound the waters of the Susquehanna to provide a slackwater pool to allow the safe passage of canal boats from the Pennsylvania Canal on the Lancaster County side across the mile-wide rocky river to the Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal on the York County side.

Towpaths of two different levels and with sidewalls were added to prevent horses from falling into the river, as had happened several times when the river flooded, and for moving canal boats. The roof of the lower path formed the floor of the upper path.

Sometime after 1846, a double-track railway was added, linking the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad to the Northern Central Railway. Due to fear of fire caused by locomotives, rail cars were pulled across the bridge by teams of mules or horses.

Bridge Burning

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.

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

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’s 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.

The piers of this famous 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.

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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 Otsego 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

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

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

Major General John F. 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. Click the link to read more.

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