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Looking Back on Old Columbus
Historic forgotten town at Suwannee River State Park

Daniel T. O’Hara’s general store was relocated alongside U.S. 90 in 1927, near the old community of Columbus, according to the memoires of his daughter, Clothilde O’Hara Mainer. Mainer passed away in 1998. -Photo by Jeffry Boatright

By Jeffry Boatright

With the passing of each generation, we lose valuable history that will be, at best, difficult to recover. Some of that unpreserved history revolves around numerous settlements across our nation that thrived for a while, perhaps even decades, before falling victim to population shifts, new highways and depleted resources. One such historical settlement, where the Suwannee and Withlacoochee Rivers divide Hamilton, Madison and Suwannee Counties, is the once-thriving Columbus.

Columbus was nestled in the woodlands along the southern border of the Suwannee River. The land once known as Columbus is now home to the Suwannee River State Park. The park is situated near U.S. 90 and CR 132, west of Live Oak near Ellaville. Like most communities of its day, Columbus had a sawmill, gristmill, stores, a post office and even a hotel. While it is not certain when the community was founded, Suwannee County Historian Eric Musgrove, asserts that it was likely in 1842 or before. According to Musgrove, the community’s post office was established in 1842.

Fortunately, we are offered a glimpse into Columbus of the late 1800s and early 1900s through the memoirs of the late Clothilde O’Hara Mainer, whose father operated a general store in the community. Mainer, who passed away in 1998, penned wonderful memories of the bygone settlement in her historical notes entitled Yesterday in Old Columbus. The 89-page narrative was published in 1985, but is unfortunately out of print. A copy is available, however, at the Suwannee River Regional Library in Live Oak for patrons to read on the premises.

According to Mainer’s composition, the community served as a junction for passengers to transition between overland and water transit. “The steamboats brought adventurous tourists up the river to what was considered the head of navigation at Columbus,” Mainer wrote. “Here connections were made for stagecoaches to convey passengers to and from the St. Johns River where connections were made with steamers out of Savannah, GA.”
Describing the legendary brick hotel as stately, Mainer depicted it as a mecca for passengers with a reputation for good food and pleasant relaxation. She added that the hotel also served as a stagecoach station. Mainer wrote that horses were fed and groomed there while minor repairs were made to the carriages.

While Columbus was apparently noted among its visitors for hospitality and delicious food, the necessity to travel by boat and stagecoach eventually faded as the automobile grew in availability and popularity. According to Musgrove, the town was described by a visitor as having two large stores and other mercantile establishments that bought cotton from surrounding counties in 1843. Musgrove cited the visitor’s claim that over 3,000 bales of cotton were shipped from Columbus in the fall of that year, with towering piles of the cash crop still awaiting shipment on the river banks. At that time, the population of Columbus was around 500, according to Musgrove.

Anyone who has visited the Suwannee River State Park, where Columbus once boomed, is familiar with the historic earthworks from the Civil War era. It is the site of manmade earthen mounds built to defend against Union Navy gunboats. Mainer eloquently articulated that the Confederate troops were sent to protect the nearby railroad bridge from possible destruction by the Union. “It was feared they would destroy the bridge to keep reinforcements and supplies from reaching General Finegan, who was in Command of the Confederate troops farther down in Florida,” she wrote.

“By 1873, however, Columbus had dried up as markets shifted and financial depression hit the United States until only one store remained in the town,” Musgrove added. “The final demise of Columbus became inevitable when George F. Drew, Florida’s first post-Reconstruction governor, built a sawmill at his newly established town of Ellaville.”

The residents of Columbus, however, kept busy with their own endeavors well into the 1900s, and the community remained home to several families, including Mainer’s family, the O’Haras. Mainer’s father, Daniel O’Hara operated a general store, which he relocated alongside U.S. 90 in 1927.

Surely, the community of Columbus would have been considered primitive by today’s standards, but it was seemingly quite modern for its day. Mainer wrote that she and her siblings decided to construct a tennis court when they became teenagers, which would have probably been during the early 1920s. “The project turned out to be quite an undertaking since there was no clay soil near Columbus,” she recorded. They were, however, able to successfully complete the tennis court using crushed lime rock from a rock crushing plant that was once operated in Columbus.

The remnants of Columbus are now scarce. A well-kept cemetery with graves dating back into the 1800s, along with the Confederate earthworks from the Civil War and remains of the ferry landing can be accessed by park visitors. The hotel, houses, gristmill, sawmill and other original structures are, however, forever gone. While the structures are gone, the memories of Columbus live on. Because of Clothilde O’Hara Mainer’s documentation and sentiment for the once-booming community, we can imagine what it might have been like to journey through a simpler time in a place called Columbus

This railroad bridge at the old community of

Columbus, was feared to be a target of the Union

troops during the Civil War.                  -Photo by Jeffry Boatright

Columbus was located on the Suwannee County side

of the Suwannee River directly across from the

Withlacoochee River.

-Photo by Jeffry Boatright

The cemetery is well-kept and accessible to park visitors.
-Photo by Jeffry Boatright

The remains of this building, which once served as a post office near Columbus, is situated near the final site of Daniel T. O’Hara’s general store.                                            -Photo by Jeffry Boatright