Columbia Furnace was most likely established during the first decade of the 19th century. The community sprang up after George Mayberry & Company, working with the Pennybackers, located an iron deposit nearby and began a mining and smelting operation. Power was supplied by the nearby Stony Creek and raw materials, including lumber, were obtained from nearby untapped mountain areas.
In 1808 the site was sold to John Arthur & Co. By 1830 their operations had dramatically expanded. A village of over 200 workers, complete with post office and stores, had emerged. The 1860 census noted Columbia was the county’s most productive furnace. Records indicate that in that year it consumed 3,304 tons of ore, 280,000 bushels of charcoal coal, and 340 tons of lime. These materials helped the furnace produce 1,365 tons of pig iron valued at $30,098 (approximately $880,000 today).
During the Civil War, Columbia Furnace was destroyed by forces on both sides and minor conflicts that occurred during the area. While an 1864 may does show the Furnace, an adjacent hotel, rows of houses, and a church, we do know operations there had ceased.
After the conflict the Furnace reopened under the direction of the Whissler family who also operated Liberty Furnace. In 1881, a race riot occurred at the site. White residents, angry at the management’s decision to employ African Americans, formed an armed and stormed both furnaces. In the process several black employees were injured. Local militia units arrived later and were able to drive the men from the furnaces, but they were unable to disperse the rioters who took refuge in the woods. To prevent further violence, the furnace management agreed to fire all African Americans if the mob agreed to disband. The compromise was accepted, and the incident ended.
This decision eliminated a major economic opportunity for the local black population, who had worked in the furnaces since before the Civil War. The racial tensions that followed, and the local paper’s support of the decision to eliminate the African American workforce, led many blacks to leave the county over the next several decades and the eventual decline in their communities.
Columbia Furnace continued to operate after this incident. In 1884 it was sold to the Philadelphia-based Columbia and Liberty Iron Company, which operated a store and mill in the village. However, they chose to close the furnace in 1886 as the iron deposits began to give out. While the village continued to serve as a local service and trade center, its days of economic prosperity were over. By 1917 the population had dropped to 70.
Over time this number fell even more as the local motel, post office, school, and several stores closed. Today, only a few individuals and a single store remain.