English Anglicans, Scots-Irish Presbyterians, freed African slaves, German Lutherans, and descendants of French Huguenots came to outnumber the first Quaker settlers within a generation.
Columbia became an incorporated borough In 1814, formed out of Hempfield Township. The same year, the world’s longest covered bridge was built and crossed the Susquehanna to Wrightsville, facilitating traffic flow across the river and reducing the need for the ferry. The bridge was 5,690 feet (1,730 m) long and 30 feet (9.1 m) wide, and had 54 stone piers. After handling traffic across the Susquehanna for 18 years, it was destroyed by high water, ice, and severe weather in the winter of 1832. A replacement covered bridge was built within two years.
In February 1826, the Pennsylvania state legislature approved $300,000 for constructing a canal along the Susquehanna’s eastern shore to bypass rapids and shallows and make the river navigable anywhere along its route. Begun in 1832, the Pennsylvania Canal went into operation in 1833. It started at Columbia, stretching 40 miles (64 km) north to the junction of the Juniata River. Travelers at Columbia could use the canal system to go west to Pittsburgh, Lake Erie, Ohio and West Virginia, north into New York State and east to Philadelphia. Canal boats could often be seen at the Bruner coal wharf, which was operated by H.F. Bruner & Sons at North Front and Bridge Streets. The original plan of the canal had been to extend it south from Columbia on the east side of the river, but local property owners objected. Instead, a two-tiered towpath was constructed along the south side of the bridge for transporting boats across the river using teams of horses and mules walking on the towpath. The boats would then link with the Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal, along the western shore at Wrightsville. This part of the canal system, which afforded passage to Baltimore or to the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, opened in 1840. Several years later, a small dam was constructed across the river to form a pool that allowed steam boats to tow the canal boats.
Canals could not be used in winter due to ice and floods, and in spring were often found to have been damaged. Such weather conditions as well as an increase in railroad traffic led to the decline of the canals, causing the Columbia Canal to close in 1901.
During this time, Columbia also became a stopping-off site on the Underground Railroad. Slaves seeking freedom were transported across the Susquehanna and often fed and given supplies on their way north to other states and Canada. To slave hunters from the South, the slaves simply disappeared, leading one hunter to declare that there “must be an underground railroad here.”
1834 saw the completion of another bridge spanning the river. Built by James Moore and John Evans at a cost of $157,300, this bridge, too, enjoyed the distinction of being the world’s longest covered bridge. This year also saw construction of the first railway line linking Columbia and Philadelphia, which subsequently became part of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Named the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad it was officially opened in October, 1834.
By 1852 regular rail transportation from Columbia to Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Harrisburg made the town the commercial center for the area halfway between the county seats of Lancaster and York.