A Jim of All Trades

150th Anniversary of the Burning of the Columbia Wrightsville Bridge (US Civil War)

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As you may or may not be aware, this week marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War. I live in Central Pennsylvania not far from Gettysburg and this is a big deal around here. For the weeks and months leading up to this, there have been a ton of articles and stories in the news and on the radio about the Battle of Gettysburg and things that are happening locally to commemorate the anniversary.

I’ve been to Gettysburg lots of times, but I’ve never toured the battlefields. I think that would be fun and interesting to do sometime, but definitely not this week. The area is overrun with tourists on account of the anniversary (Gettysburg is bad every summer, this is just worse than normal) and the crowds, traffic, and hecticness of it all would be too much for me. I’ll go sometime “off season.”

Outside of Gettysburg though, the area is still rich with history from the war. Very close to where I live, the towns of Columbia and Wrightsville share an interesting story from the war. Last Friday, June 28th, marked the 150th anniversary of fighting in this area and the burning of a mile long covered bridge over the Susquehanna River. To observe the anniversary, there were a lot of events over the last weekend.

A little history:
The Susquehanna River is a major river that runs through this part of the state, close to where I live it separates Lancaster and York Counties. Wrightsville (York county) and Columbia (Lancaster County) sit on opposite sides of the mile wide river and there is a bridge that connects the two towns.

The current Lincoln Highway Bridge today:

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Back in 1863, there was a wooden covered bridge. In the right of the picture above, you can see the old piers where the bridge once stood. (I’ll note that this bridge has been destroyed and rebuilt a few times over the past 150 years, so I’m not 100% sure if they’re the exact same piers).

A look at them from the current Lincoln Highway Bridge (old photo I took a few years ago):

Old Bridge Posts s

During the Civil War, to combat advancing Confederate troops from the Wrightsville side of the river (I’ve read both that they intended to capture the bridge, and that they were just advancing and needed to cross the bridge), Union Troops destroyed the bridge to make it impassable. The initial plan was to blow up the bridge, but the explosions weren’t strong enough to destroy it, so four men actually set fire to it, burning it down completely.

For the anniversary, there was a ceremonial “burning of the bridge” to mark the occasion. The Lincoln Highway Bridge was closed to traffic and opened to the public (well, for the fee of $2 per person) to stand and watch, and people lined the rivers edge where ever possible to watch. The idea was that fires would be lit on top of each of the remaining piers to symbolize the burning of the old bridge. This was all done at night, of course, and capped off with a fireworks display.

A lot of people showed up, several thousand supposedly:

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The whole idea sounded good in theory, but it wasn’t nearly as cool as I was thought it would be. Well, honestly, I didn’t know what to expect. I was thinking of big raging fires on top of the old piers, giving the effect of a burning bridge. In actuality, they were only little bonfires, and they weren’t that impressive. They weren’t small, but in comparison to the size of the piers and the vast expanse of the river, it left a lot to the imagination to picture a whole bridge burning.

This is a look from about half way across. See what I mean about the small fires…

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It took forever, too. They lit them one by one, boating from one pier to the next and starting them by hand, going in the direction the bridge originally burnt. It started at 9:30 PM and when we went home after the fireworks, sometime around 10:30, they were still only half way across. A relative ventured back out well after 11:00, and they were just then finishing up lighting the fires.

I should note that I am not big on ceremony and symbolism. I find the history and story fascinating, but seeing it played out doesn’t do much for me. To put it another way, I’d rather go to a museum than a reenactment, if that makes any sense. So the odds of me being impressed by this were slim to begin with, though I’m sure other people loved it.

A few shots of fireworks going off over the river and the “burning bridge.”

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Perhaps I am being a little too critical. Considering the resources available for these small towns and the conditions (lots of vegetation on the piers – couldn’t have BIG fires) they truly did do the best they could. It was neat, anyway, and I’m sure the majority of people there really did enjoy it. And I don’t believe this is a well known story from the war, so it was neat to learn more about it.

There was another commemorative civil war event that I went to over the weekend, and I’ll do another post shortly about it.

Thanks for reading!

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  1. […] my last post I talked about the burning of the Columbia Wrightsville Bridge during the Civil War and an event […]


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