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Columbia County

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County text and building entries by Patricia Likos Ricci

Columbia County is set in rolling hills that sweep down from the Pocono Plateau across the North Branch Susquehanna River. Pines and hemlocks, iron ore and anthracite, and fertile valleys attracted settlers from New England and other parts of Pennsylvania. Shortly after the Penn family created Northumberland County in 1772, colonists of English, Scots-Irish, and German ancestry began migrating from southeastern Pennsylvania to the region. Large tracts of what is now Columbia County were acquired by the Shippen and Chew families of Philadelphia and sold to Quaker pioneers who founded communities at Catawissa, Berwick, and Millville. James McClure of Paxton, Lancaster County, settled a mile north of the mouth of Fishing Creek on the site that would become Bloomsburg. To protect these frontier settlements from attack during the Revolutionary War, a chain of forts was constructed along the North Branch Susquehanna.

In 1813, Columbia County was established from parts of Northumberland County and all of present-day Montour County. The name reflects the patriotic fervor of the War of 1812 when Joseph Hopkinson's song “Hail Columbia” was adopted as an anthem. When the county seat was moved from Danville to Bloomsburg in 1846, a power struggle ensued that resulted in the division of the western part of the Columbia into Montour County in 1850. The county's economic development was based primarily on iron, steel, and textiles. A large deposit of anthracite in the southern tip of the county made coal mining a secondary industry and also provided fuel to process iron ore from the Montour Ridge. Foundries in Bloomsburg and Berwick became major manufacturers of iron rails, vehicles, and tools from the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth. The desire to link distant markets led to persistent attempts to navigate the river until the 1826 explosion of the steamboat Susquehannaon the Nescopeck Falls at Berwick shifted focus to the building of canals. The development of the North Branch Canal was supported in part by Philadelphia financier Stephen Girard, who had purchased the anthracite deposits of Conyngham Township in 1830. Thirty years later, Columbia's coal region attracted national attention when the Molly Maguires, a covert organization of Irish miners, was accused of murdering Alexander W. Rea, superintendent of the Locust Mountain Coal and Iron Company, and of attempting to blow up the Catawissa Railroad trestle bridge in 1875. Eight Molly Maguires were convicted and hanged in Bloomsburg's jail in 1878. Coal also was the source of Centralia's fate. The town became uninhabitable in 1962 when a fire started in a garbage dump ignited the coal veins in a mine shaft beneath the town, buckling the streets and polluting the air with sulfur dioxide. Still burning after forty years, it has created a noman's-land on PA 61.

Today only a third of Columbia County's economy is based on mining and construction; manufacturing has diversified and service professions have assumed a larger role. One of the largest employers is Bloomsburg University ( CO15), part of the state university system. Yet more than half of Columbia County remains rural though suburbs and shopping centers have sprung up outside of Bloomsburg to serve the college population. The county's most significant buildings are its vernacular Quaker meetinghouses and Victorian civic buildings and houses in Bloomsburg and Berwick. Many of these were designed by such local architects as Louis Bernhard ( CO14), Verus T. Ritter ( CO10), and B. W. Jury ( CO9). Columbia County has twenty-three covered bridges, the third largest concentration of any Pennsylvania county.

Writing Credits

Author: 
George E. Thomas

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