Columbia: Will Fluvanna's historic burg be saved?

COLUMBIA– 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 Fluvanna town's main street sag from neglect, half the streets are unpaved, and the town's plumbing is so antiquated that 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 of restaurants,'' says 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 aim 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,'' Anderson says. "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 arsenal was captured by the British in June 1781, an event townspeople re-enact every summer with replica 18th-century James River bateaux, flat 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 boasted seven taverns– probably the best evidence of a town's wealth. There were also four churches, a bank, and profitable milling and ferry businesses.

Columbia was occupied again during the Civil War, but the years following 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 were no longer stopping in Columbia, and the town began a slow decline. Freight trains disappeared over 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," says 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. 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,'" says 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."

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 says.

The question remains, though, 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, Anderson said.

One structure, the Victorian-era railroad station, was moved out of the flood zone and refurbished in 1978, but it's doubtful some of the older buildings would survive a move. In the late-1980s, a seller offered a string of buildings on the main street, a move that brought headlines touting a "town for sale."

Anderson, who moved to Columbia five and a half years ago because it was halfway between his job in Charlottesville and his wife's in Richmond, said the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant is the first step. The $718,000 grant will be used to replace the town's 50-year-old plumbing system, which often freezes in the winter, and repair homes belonging to low- to middle-income residents.

Many people fit in this category, and much needs to be done. One man in particular, Anderson said, is living in a home with no heat and part of the roof missing.

For longtime residents like Newton, it's been a long wait.

"The night I heard about the grant, I just hollered and hollered, I was so happy," she says. "Our town slogan is 'Keeping our heads above water.'"


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