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The Susquehanna Valley Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center welcomes you to explore all we have to offer. Visit us to experience life along the scenic Susquehanna River. Nestled along the river's bank, the Susquehanna River Towns of Columbia, Marietta and Wrightsville find their past, present and future all linked to this water source. Come ashore and join us on our journey.
The three communities of Columbia, Marietta, and Wrightsville anchor the Susquehanna Valley Chamber of Commerce. Each town is proud of its heritage and works to preserve the history of the region.
As the river cut its path through the valley it created a fertile area perfect for habitation. And along its banks numerous civilizations flourished. The river provided water for sustenance and an avenue for transportation. Digs near the water's edge have unearthed Native American artifacts which date back thousands of years. Tribes such as the Shawanese and Susquehannocks inhabited the area; numerous locations - including the Susquehanna River - still bear their tribal names.
European influence arrived to the area in the 1720's when Robert Barber, John Wright, and Samuel Blunston settled in Shawannah, the Indian town located here. With close ties to contemporaries such as William Penn and Benjamin Franklin, these founding families also brought culture and education to the area. The desire to cross the river spawned a lucrative business for John Wright, so much so that by 1730 the area was renamed Wright's Ferry. This access to the western banks of the Susquehanna gave the town the distinction of being known far and wide as the Gateway to the West.
The settlement flourished, and by 1788, a land lottery was set up to establish the town of Columbia. This new name was in line with movements of the time to name locations in honor of Christopher Columbus. The name change was also motivated by a desire to make the area a more attractive choice for a city to serve as the new nation's capital. Only a few votes made the difference in the choice of location for the Capital after some back-room political maneuvering swayed key votes. Nevertheless, the area prospered.
Transportation continued to play a key role in Columbia's development. Canals along the shallow Susquehanna shoreline helped the area prosper as a trade center. Later, railroads would provide transportation for goods purchased in Columbia's tanneries, foundries and numerous mills. This busy hub moved more than goods; it moved escaped slaves to freedom. The town's burgeoning free African American community worked quietly but effectively with the abolitionists, many guided by the founding fathers' Quaker ideals of peace and justice. Historians recently have found evidence pointing to Columbia as the birthplace of the term "Underground Railroad." Millionaire Stephen Smith, a free black man who operated a lumber yard by the railroad tracks, was an outspoken opponent of slavery and a willing accomplice to those on the path to freedom.
Columbia's role in the Civil War era extended beyond its Underground Railroad activity. The Confederate forces had worked their way north and were intent on heading east to Philadelphia and New York. Their path would lead across the Susquehanna River. Four Columbia citizens, encouraged by Union leadership, set fire to the middle portion of the wooden covered bridge that spanned the river at the time. The entire bridge eventually burned creating greater destruction than originally planned, but the Confederate army was forced to turn to the West. Their path took them to the town of Gettysburg and to a turning point in the Civil War.
Columbians have always fought in the country's wars. African Americans traveled north to join the famous 54th Massachusetts that fought in the Civil War. Citizens enlisted in the various wars, and joined military fraternal organizations when they returned home. Some have their final resting places in Columbia cemeteries. Columbia was home to eight generals and admirals, an unusually high percentage.
Columbia has continued to change with the time, diversifying its economy into tourism with such attractions as the world-renowned National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors' Museum and the new Turkey Hill Experience. Culture still plays an important role here as seen in the numerous art galleries and antique shops.
Marietta lies along the Susquehanna River just north of Columbia, positioned for commerce and industry based on river usage. Marietta was once a rowdy, hard-drinking, gritty center of the lumber and iron industries. It started in the early 1700s as an American Indian trade outpost. By 1736 it was known as Anderson's Ferry, named for James Anderson who operated a river-crossing site. Smaller settlements developed over the ensuing years, all clustered around Anderson's Ferry. These communities consolidated with some outlying farmland to become the Borough of Marietta, named for the womenfolk of some of the founding families who included many Marys and at least one Henrietta.
In the early days the lumber business was a key component of the town's industry. Marietta was a processing center of raw timber floated down the river every spring from forests in the central part of the state. When the Pennsylvania Canal was built along the river between 1825 and 1830, it attracted more trade and itinerants who either worked on the canal boats or plied the river on rafts. The town grew quickly and the river trade attracted entrepreneurs who hoped to strike it rich shipping and storing goods such as coal and whiskey.
The entrepreneurs who succeeded became Marietta's patriarchs who guided and stimulated the town's early cultural and economic development. Naturally, these individuals had some of the most remarkable homes in town. Their grand homes still stand in contrast to the workers' wood-framed clapboard homes, whose construction reflects the ready availability of lumber.
While lumber production accounts for the town's early prosperity, it was the iron-smelting industry that carried the town's economy from the late 19th century into the early 20th century. At one time as many as eight iron furnaces operated just east of the borough. Over time, the iron industry had trouble competing with emerging industries. Marietta's business economy slowly ebbed.
Ironically, it was that economic downturn that positioned Marietta to become the jewel that it is today. Homes were largely unimproved during that time period, leaving their historic character intact. More than half of Marietta is designated a National Historic District. The town is a recognized center for restoration. Today Marietta is known for its bed and breakfast inns, unique restaurants, and historic charm.
Ferry operator John Wright's son, John Wright Jr., directed the west shore operation for his father at what is now the foot of Hellam Street in Wrightsville. In 1811 the Wright family sold the west shore land to Jacob Kline who laid out the 101-lot town of Wrightsville. In 1812 establishment of the adjoining town of Westphalia occurred as did Wrightsville Extended in 1813. All were incorporated into Wrightsville Borough in 1834.
General John Gordon's brigade of Early's Division of General Robert E. Lee's invading Confederate army approached Wrightsville on Sunday, June 28, 1863. After a brief encounter, hastily assembled defending Union forces retreated across the bridge toward Columbia. The defenders attempted to destroy the bridge's center section, but instead fire destroyed the whole bridge. The Confederates turned back only to fight the Union army again a few days later at Gettysburg.
The Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal opened in 1840 and ran 45 miles downstream to the Chesapeake Bay. Traffic consisting of grain, iron, lumber, and coal barges peaked in 1870. Canal boats, pulled by mules on a special double-deck towpath section of the bridge, crossed over from the Pennsylvania Canal at Columbia to the Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal's start at Wrightsville.
Over the years, Wrightsville has been home to such diverse businesses as cigar manufacturing, quarries, limekilns, lumber mills, a silk miller, a flour and feed mill, hardware manufacturing, and inn-keeping. One of the oldest buildings in Wrightsville is the Wrightsville House, a restored tavern from 1800 which overlooks the Susquehanna River where the ferry crossed from Columbia.