West Columbia comprises two towns, East Columbia (originally named Marion but also called Bell's Landing and, from the 1840s, East Columbia) and West Columbia (originally called Columbia, and eventually absorbing East Columbia), both founded by one of Stephen F. Austin's colonists, Josiah H. Bell on the league of land granted to him in 1824. Between September and December 1836, West Columbia was provisional capital of the Republic of Texas. Reflecting West Columbia's fall from grace, Bell sold both townsites to Brazoria County–Fort Bend County merchants Walter C. White and James Knight in 1837. Between 1858 and 1860, the Houston Tap and Brazoria Railroad, one of the earliest railroads to operate in Texas, was built from Houston to the east bank of the Brazos River across from East Columbia; it was called the “sugar road” and site work was performed by the slaves of the planters who expected to benefit from it. The end of slavery crippled the plantation economy of Brazoria County and its towns did not grow. Intermittent floods of the Brazos River, particularly in 1899 and 1913, and the Storm of 1900 exacerbated persistent economic stagnation.
The East Columbia Historic District, alongside the Brazos River, is now the most intact historic townsite in Brazoria County, although its front street commercial district has evaporated, leaving only a line of houses facing the river. West Columbia rebounded after oil was discovered in 1918 at what is now the Varner-Hogg Plantation State Historic Site just north of West Columbia. This fueled the construction of a public school building program after World War II that produced one of the most renowned buildings in Texas: Donald Barthelme's West Columbia Elementary School ( AS22).
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