Having been rebuilt four different times since its conception in 1812, the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge is the longest concrete arch bridge in the world as well as being the site of a significant skirmish in the American Civil War. Union and Confederate troops clashed here in the summer of 1863 as Confederate General John B. Gordon attempted to take the bridge from the Pennsylvania militia commanded by Union Colonel Jacob G. Frick. The resulting skirmish had a lasting impact on the Battle of Gettysburg and the entire American Civil War.
The early 1800’s saw an increase in settlers along the
fertile Susquehanna Valley in south-central Pennsylvania. The river towns of
Columbia and Wrightsville were hubs for industry along the windy Susquehanna
river which carved its route through the valley before dumping into the
Chesapeake Bay to the South.
Construction began on the first bridge to link the two towns
in 1812 with construction wrapping up in 1814 making the bridge the longest
covered bridge in the world. The bridge was constructed mostly of oak wood and
stone and provided safe passage across the river for fourteen years before
being pushed downriver by a surge of ice and storm water.
Much of the oak wood from the first bridge was salvaged and
used in the construction of the second bridge beginning in 1832 and wrapping up
by 1834. This bridge also earned the distinction of the longest covered bridge
in the world at the time. The bridge was eventually modified in 1840 concurrent
with the construction of the Wrightsville Dam in an effort to make traffic
across the bridge safer. A double track railway was added sometime after 1846
but due to the fear of fire from locomotives, rail cars were pulled across by
horses or mules.
The Second bridge would play a looming role in the American
Civil War as the bridge was the only crossing on the Susquehanna from
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and Conowingo, Maryland making it a valuable bridge to
hold if the Confederates wanted to take the War to the North.
On the afternoon of June 28th 1863, General John
B. Gordon accompanied by Major General Jubal Early, marched the Confederate army through the small town of Wrightsville
in an attempt to take the bridge. The Union Army was waiting, however, a Union
Colonel named Jacob G. Frick had taken command of the Pennsylvania Militia and
dug in at Wrightsville with 1,400 militiamen to defend the bridge.
Upon the arrival of Gordon and his Confederate Army, Frick
quickly realized that his small batch of militiamen would not be able to hold
off a full Confederate assault. Frick ordered his men back across the bridge to
the Eastern Shore and Columbia in an attempt to detonate charges along the
wooden bridge, rendering it uncrossable. The charges failed to destroy the bridge,
so the Colonel ordered his men to light the bridge ablaze and burn it to the
bottom of the river. The bridge, mainly constructed of oak wood went up in
flames producing a tower of smoke which Confederate soldiers say was visible as
far as Hanover, nearly 25 miles away.
The halt of the Confederate
advance across the river had been a great victory for the Union. By preventing the
Southern troops from crossing the river, they North had bought some time for
General Meade and his Army of the Potomac to march North and confront the
Rebels at Gettysburg. The lasting battle and series of events would eventually
lead to a Union victory in the war, a lasting impact felt from the Northern
defense of the Columbia-Wrightsville bridge.
A third bridge was constructed after the war in 1868; this
time the operation was undertaken by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company. Built
mainly with stone, wood, and steel, the third bridge was eventually taken down
by the 1896 Cedar Keys Hurricane, which would pave way for the modern
architectural feat that stands today.
Construction on the fourth bridge began in 1897 and took
only twenty-one days; considered the fastest bridge building job in the world
at the time. Consisting of twenty-eight steel arches, each 185 feet long, the
Columbia-Wrightsville bridge is believed to be the longest concrete arch bridge
in the world. The bridge was designed to be resistant to ice, fire, water and
all the things which had taken down the bridge in the past. The train traffic
across the bridge would ultimately be a significant bottleneck to the Lincoln
Highway, which was completed in 1925. Eventually a fifth bridge (Veterans
Memorial Bridge) was erected next to the original bridge to accommodate for
pedestrian and vehicle traffic. The Original bridge and its Stone arches are
still standing today and is a historic staple of the region, registered to the
National Register of Historic places.