By 1900, the town’s population had grown to over 12,000, with a 50% increase from 1880 to 1900. Some of the items produced by its industries were silk goods, lace, pipe, laundry machinery, stoves, iron toys, flour, lumber, and wagons. By this time Wright’s Ferry had ceased its operations, having been supplanted by rail and bridge traffic.
For over half a century, Columbia has been home to the headquarters of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors (NAWCC), whose campus on Poplar Street includes a clocktower, museum, library, and “School of Horology,” for training professional clock and watch repairers.
In 1930, another bridge, the Veterans Memorial Bridge, was opened to facilitate traffic flow across the Susquehanna. It first opened as a toll bridge, and to avoid the toll, in coldest winter months some daring motorists would cross on the firmly frozen river.
Also in the 1930s, many of Columbia’s brick walkways were replaced with concrete sidewalks by D.K. Lockard, and H.T. Peters of Mountville, whose bronze plaques can still be seen today embedded in the sidewalks.
Some of the original schools in Columbia were the Washington Institute, Manor Street School, Cherry Street School, Poplar Street School, and Taylor School. Today’s schools are Park Elementary, Taylor Elementary, Holy Trinity Elementary, Our Lady of the Angels Elementary, and the Columbia High School.
The start of the 20th century brought economic challenge to Columbia as local industries declined. The lumber industry eventually disappeared as surrounding woodlands became depleted. With the depletion of Chestnut Hill iron ores, the iron furnaces shut down. Eventually steel rolling mills also ceased operation. In 1906, the Pennsylvania Railroad opened a new facility in Enola across the river from Harrisburg which decreased the work force of Columbia’s railroad. By 1920, the population had dropped over 10% to 10,836.
The Great Depression accelerated Columbia’s economic decline. The Pennsylvania Railroad’s service to the north and the south was eliminated. WW II brought increased employment, but did not bring long-term prosperity to the borough.
The 1960 population had returned to the 1900 levels, and in 1965 a detailed study of Columbia’s basic strengths and weaknesses was prepared. Although some of the reports findings were implemented, most were not. The Wright’s Ferry Bridge was opened in 1972, but only served to divert traffic around Columbia. The growth and prosperity experienced in many surrounding Lancaster County towns bypassed Columbia for the remainder of the 20th Century, but with the start of the next century, there are promising changes in the works: a new hotel, an entertainment attraction, Historic District status, art galleries, and repurposing of old structures.