- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 8, 2002

COLUMBIA, Va. Legend has it that this tiny town at the confluence of the James and Rivanna rivers was one vote away from becoming Virginia's capital in the late 1700s.
Two centuries later, vacant buildings on the town's main street sag from neglect, half the streets are unpaved and the town's plumbing is so antiquated the fire department has to pump river water to put out blazes.
"This one little town had everything once: a watch repair shop, three service stations, three grocery stores, a couple restaurants," said Irene Newton, who has lived in Columbia for 71 years. "There's been a lot of tragedy that's destroyed this town."
Tragedy came in the form of two devastating floods, caused by Hurricane Camille in 1969 and Hurricane Agnes in 1972. The first "500-year flood," as Mayor Jay Anderson calls them, punished Columbia; the second buried it.
Then came fires that destroyed several shops and an old Victorian home considered a jewel of the community.
But Columbia's luck may be about to change. The town of 50 residents has received more than $700,000 in federal grant money to begin rebuilding, with the intention of becoming a historical tourist magnet for central Virginia.
"We are in a good position because what we have here is railroad history, river history, canal history, and we're on a scenic byway," Mr. Anderson said. "We need to realize what makes the future of this town bright: The people who come here want to feel the quaint, historic feel of this community."
Columbia's shabby appearances belie its wealth of history. Once the center of the American Indians' Monacan nation, the area was strategically important in the Virginia colony's early history: first as a trading post on the western frontier, then as the location of the state's chief arsenal during the Revolutionary War.
The British captured the arsenal in June 1781, an event townspeople re-enact every summer with replica 18th-century James River bateaux, flat-bottomed boats pointed at both ends to navigate the swift rapids of the river.
After the war, Columbia flourished as a shipping point on the James for the tobacco trade, eventually forming its own bateau freight line and building inspection warehouses. The town also became an important meeting place for canals linking Richmond to Lynchburg along the James and to Charlottesville along the Rivanna.
Gold mines opening in eastern Fluvanna County brought more people in the mid-1800s. At one time, Columbia had seven taverns, probably the best evidence of a town's wealth, as well as four churches, a bank and profitable milling and ferry businesses.
Columbia was occupied again during the Civil War, but the years afterward brought the railroad and hopes of industrial growth. The Allegheny Railroad Company brought tons of freight and thousands of people through the crossroads every year, keeping the economy humming through the Great Depression.
By 1958, though, passenger and mail trains no longer were stopping in Columbia, and the town began a slow decline. Freight trains disappeared during the next decade.
The floods wiped out the few businesses remaining on Columbia's once-vibrant St. James Street.
"When there's a flood, you don't sleep," said Mrs. Newton, whose mother lost one of her three variety stores in the 1969 flood. "It was awful. When you are up on the hill, you just wonder how much higher the water is going to get. The only way we could get food was by helicopter."
"After that there was just no coming back," she said.
Until now. Mr. Anderson has grand plans for a revitalized community, with a canal walk reminiscent of Richmond's and antique shops lining the streets. It's something the state is eyeing, as well.
"I look at it and say, 'Wow, there's a lot of intact historical fabric here, and what a fabulous place this could be again,'" said Kathleen Kilpatrick, director of the state's Department of Historic Resources. "It's all about taking stock of what you've got and putting it back to work for you."
Miss Kilpatrick said she toured the town earlier this year and decided it had great potential to be listed on state and national historic registers. Under such designation, many of the dilapidated 18th-century buildings in the town could be refurbished using state and federal tax credits, she said.
The question remains, though, of how many of the structures are salvageable. Many have not been restored before because they lie in the flood plain, which makes financing tricky and renovations prohibitively expensive, Mr. Anderson said.
One structure, the Victorian-era railroad station, was moved out of the flood zone and refurbished in 1978, but it is doubtful some of the older buildings would survive a move.


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