The Borough of Columbia occupies the site of Shawanah Indian Town. The first white men arrived here in 1726. By 1730, John Wright procured a patent, built a ferry house on the north side of Locust Street and called it Wright's Ferry. In the eighteenth century, the town and ferry service were a gateway to the frontier. It was so popular that wagons, freight, supplies and people often backed-up waiting several days to cross the river.
In the spring of 1788, land surrounding the ferry house was surveyed and laid out into 160 building lots. They were chanced off by lottery. Samuel Wright, son of James Wright, named the town Columbia, thinking it would become the Capital of the United States. This honor was missed by the narrow margin of one vote.
During the 19th century, Columbia grew quickly becoming a hub for railroad and canal traffic. Warehouses and factories were built, and the riverfront became a transfer point for lumber, coal, grain and pig iron. It played an integral part in the transfer of African Americans to freedom. Columbia had a large free black population as well as many Quakers - noted abolitionists. To slave hunters from the South, the slaves seemed to simply disappear when they reached Columbia, leading one hunter to declare, “there must be an underground railroad here.”
The start of the 20th century brought economic challenge to Columbia as local industries declined. Railroad freight decreased and local factories and production-like warehousing, tobacco processing and fabric mills struggled to survive.
Today, Columbia remains the largest of the river towns and is leading the region's rebirth. The community has once again embraced its important location along the Susquehanna by expanding water access, trails, and parks. Historic architecture, unique antique markets, and cozy restaurants fill the downtown.