Beginning 288 years ago, when John Wright launched a ferry in the area where his grandson would create the town of Columbia, the Susquehanna River has been central to borough’s development.
Wright’s ferry eventually gave way to a bridge, and then river travel was augmented by a clever network of canals, which in turn gave way to a rail line that began regular service in 1834.
Fueled by railroad workers and industries that wanted to be close to the transportation hub, Columbia boomed during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Factories in town produced silk, textiles, stoves and machinery while iron furnaces between Columbia and Marietta churned out so much pig iron the area was dubbed “Little Pittsburgh.”
Along with the railroad itself, the town’s factories and mills attracted immigrant workers who blended with the large black population that was a legacy of Columbia’s role in the Underground Railroad.
“This was the melting pot for immigrants,” said Chris Vera, a town historian who says that rough-and-tumble period generated some of the negative stigma about the town that persists today.
Through the middle of the 20th century, Columbia continued to bustle, with its downtown boasting an opera house, four movie theaters and department stores such as Watt & Shand and Woolworth.
But as railroad use diminished and industries that had sprouted in Columbia moved elsewhere, the town started to hollow out.
And, as they did in other small towns in Lancaster County, merchants left Columbia’s downtown when more shopping activity moved to Park City, which opened in 1971, only four years after completion of the new Route 30 that made the mall a quick and convenient trip from Columbia.
While some longtime borough residents pine for those days of shopping and industry, others see the need for a different future.
“We’re reinventing ourselves,” said Leo Lutz, Columbia’s mayor. “We’re basically taking a step back and saying, ‘What was in our past that we can capitalize on and make part of our future?’”
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Refocused on the river
Many people in Columbia believe the key to Columbia’s future is the same thing that spurred its past: the Susquehanna River.
But instead of ferries, railroads and factories, the river is now inspiring projects that focus on boating, biking and other recreation.
“Before, many people thought of it as a run-down, blue-collar town, but now people see it as a recreation destination,” said Brenda Sieglitz, board president of the Susquehanna Valley Chamber of Commerce.
The March 2016 opening in town of a trail center at the southern entrance to the 14-mile Northwest Lancaster County River Trail was a key project that helped refocus attention on a new reason to come to the river.
“The trail is huge,” says Cleon “Cle” Berntheizel IV, a council member and business owner who has been involved in civic affairs for three decades.
Berntheizel says the riverfront trail and the trailhead building are spurring some renewed optimism in the rest of town.
“There's a buzz that I’ve never felt before and I think Columbia is definitely due that,” he said. “It has struggled for a long time to try to redefine itself.”
Berntheizel said he also believes some of the positive changes in Lancaster city have been rippling out to Columbia.
“When Lancaster starts coming back, it brings its boroughs back with it,” he said.
‘Great historical bones’
In addition to major investments along the Susquehanna River, Columbia recently solved a problem that bedevils many Lancaster County boroughs: traffic.
In Columbia, through traffic — including heavy truck traffic — was routed around town with a new bypass, from Route 30 to Route 441, that avoided Locust Street and the town’s historic center.
Municipal officials say these key recent improvements have spurred renewed interest from developers wanting to make — or remake — something out of the town’s historic structures.
“The architecture in the town is awesome,” said Benjamin Myers. “It has great historical bones, and with the right investment dollars you’ll see Columbia really start to gain some energy and momentum.”
Myers is part of Eberly Myers, a Lancaster-based investment group that plans to build new apartments in Lancaster but has also just begun work on a new, 33-unit apartment building in the 100 block of Locust Street in Columbia.
Don Murphy believes Eberly Myers has discovered something about Columbia he has known since he started buying local real estate in 2009.
Along with his wife, Becky, Murphy now owns 11 Columbia properties, including the landmark Hinkle’s Restaurant and a building at 224 Locust St., where a new brewpub is slated to open this fall.
“We certainly ignited a fire and definitely have created a lot of attention for Columbia for what we’ve done,” Murphy said.
Despite what the town has going for it, Murphy, who grew up in Columbia, said that old, negative stigma about the town continues to keep it off the radar for some investors.
“I don’t care what the perception is,” he said. “I know what’s here and what exists and what it’s potential is.”