The cost of the Rebel invasion – Part 2
Bonfires are ablaze on the 145th anniversary of the burning of the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge. The piers are the original ones from the covered bridge of Civil War days. Photos courtesy of Michael J. Belgie Sr. of Fire & Ice Photography. Used by written permission. Contact him to purchase this or other photographs.
Perhaps the most spectacular fire in the history of York and Lancaster counties was the June 28, 1863, blaze that fully consumed the world’s largest covered bridge — the venerable structure that had spanned the Susquehanna River between Wrightsville and Columbia. Union high command had ordered part of the bridge destroyed to prevent the Confederates from crossing the river (which was too swollen from recent rains to be forded, and the bridge was the only viable crossing between Harrisburg and Maryland). Attempts to blow up a single span failed, and the Pennsylvania militia resorted to Plan B – burn a section. The winds shifted, and the old bridge acted as a wind tunnel, carrying the flames eastward for six hours until the entire thing had collapsed as a smoldering wreckage into the river.
Almost immediately, the bridge owners (the Columbia Bank) began counting their losses. It was quite a reversal of fortune! For several days, the bank had made substantial windfall profits from the sudden upsurge in traffic crossing the toll bridge. People had trekked from Franklin and Adams counties, with a few from Maryland’s Cumberland Valley, taking livestock, wagons, carriages, buggies, and other conveyances across the river to presumed safety.
Tolls had been suspended by the army earlier on June 28 to help clear a logjam of more frightened refugees as the Rebel forces neared. It is impossible to know how much revenue the bank lost that afternoon, but with a sliding scale from a buck a wagon down to six and a half cents per pedestrian, it was a tidy sum.
Of much more import to the Columbia Bank was the long-term loss of toll money until a new bridge couldbe erected, coupled with the cost of dismantling the charred remnants, clearing the riverbed as best as possible, and then building the new bridge. Insurance covered only a portion of the expenses. The Board of Directors of the bank authorized officials to sue the Federal government if necessary to recover their estimated $150,000 loss, citing an obscure 1849 law that held the army liable for the destruction of private property by the military.
The bank never received its desired compensation, and late that year sold the piers and access abutments to the Pennsylvania Railroad for $57,000, writing off the rest. Frequent efforts for decades failed to convince Congress to fork over the remaining debt, and local Congressman Joe Pitts has a couple of times recently resurrected the discussion, estimating the debt is now $170 million with inflation since 1863.