Historic Columbia is a treasure of Delta area
Ouachita River port served wide area with steamboat transportation in 19th-20th centuries

By Mary K. Hamner
Journal Correspondent

It was late February and winter's drab colors were still draped across the landscape when friend Donna Merritt and I decided to see if we could lighten our moods by taking a day trip. I had been to Columbia before--wanted to go back--and knew that it was a good two-hour drive. Having learned from Louis Lamour that traveling the same route twice was never wise, we cut through Government Road from Ashland and intersected with Highway 126 just south of Readhimer. Our early morning trek led east. The sun was in our eyes lighting up the hills and valleys as we drove through beautiful North Louisiana.

On intersecting with Highway 165, the impression was that this is just another Commercial Avenue occupied with Sonics, gas stations, and other business establishments. Cemetery Hill off to the right was an eye catcher and caused us to wonder why a steep bluff was chosen for a graveyard. It would be easy to miss the historic town of Columbia, established in 1827, if one followed the Highway on over the bridge to East Columbia. A right turn onto Church Street led us into an awe-inspiring day of discovery in the old river port town on the Quachita River.

First United Methodist Church was on our right and we pulled into the front parking lot for a closer look. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Columbia's famous "little green church" is perhaps the town's signature. The church was erected from plans brought from a member all the way from Europe resembling Scandinavian style in 1911 on the site where its first congregation began in 1847. A walk around the side of the church, with stained glass windows tastefully arranged throughout, led to a small historic cemetery. Blanks, an early riverboat captain and influential leader of early Columbia and members of his family are buried there.

Fortune smiled on us as we traveled down toward the river levee and parked near the 1916 Schepis Museum and Main Street Columbia Office. Polly Harrelson, Manager of the Main Street Program, met us there and offered to accompany us on a tour of some of the historic sites. Driving through downtown, Polly was a rich source of information as she pointed out The Captain's Quarters, a 104-year-old home, now used as a Bed and Breakfast, four restaurants, shops offering diverse wares, and an authentic riverfront saloon.

The Meditation Chapel, a small but magnificent chapel was built as a prayer room, and serving as a quiet place of solitude for all, is located on the corner of Church Street and Boatner Street. It is home to a countless collection of religious artworks, dating back to the 15th century, from all over the world. The courtyard features Victorious, a magnificent bronze statue of an angel holding a wounded Christian martyr. The rare and precious collection inside the chapel includes prayer rails from the Isle of Mann.

As we continued our tour, our guide pointed out the Library where we would later go for the excellent assistance of staff members in obtaining research into the history of Columbia and Caldwell Parish. The cemetery on a hill was our final destination before our guide took us back to the Schepis Museum office where we gathered information to guide us to explore on our own. Before leaving us, Mrs. Harrelson took us to a scenic overlook in the final stages of development, using the historic foundation of the original drawbridge at the foot of Main Street as its first tier. The Tensas Basin Levee Board has cooperated with the Caldwell Parish Industrial Development Board and the Town of Columbia to build a set of concrete steps leading from the top of the levee to the river in order to gain access to the river.

Pursuing all the history leads became for my traveling companion and I a fascinating ramble. Seeing a painting in the museum of one former drawbridge that was torn down brought forth the lore about citizens of Columbia gathering to stage a protest the day the historic bridge was torn down. The old bridge built in the 1936 era, was demolished in 2007 to make way for the new structure that was part of the plan when Hwy. 165 was extended into four lanes. Other sources indicate that still another earlier drawbridge across the Columbia River port site was hit by a barge traveling the river and was damaged beyond repair. The steamboating era on the Quachita River through Caldwell Parish was 1819-1927. Railroads were completed through the parish between 1888 and 1890.

A ride or walk up the winding Cemetery Hill path affords what must be one of the most breathtaking views in North Louisiana. Dogwoods and azaleas in the springtime, brilliant golden leaves in autumn-serene beauty year round. A climb to the top of the bluff offers a bird's eye view of Columbia's East Side, as yet unexplored by my friend and me. From our vantage point, high up on the hill, we see the plains beyond are in sharp contrast with the high bluffs we stand on. The beautiful Quachita and the new bridge are just beyond Columbia's historic Main Street and its treasures, many listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Winding on through the cemetery, we notice a marker telling the story of the yellow fever epidemic which, in 1853, had swept the community and brought death to nearly one-third of its 150 residents, including all the physicians. \par }{\plain Still another marker tells the story of the last hanging in Louisiana. It reads as follows: "Six escapees from famous Cummins Prison shot it out in Caldwell Parish in 1940. Four of the convicts survived the gun battle, but not the hangman. There, four men were the last four prisoners ever hanged to death in Louisiana. The hanging of Floyd Boyce, William Heard, William Landers, and William McHarg, was also the state's biggest execution of the century."

"On September 2, 1940, the escapees, who had kidnapped three Rayville teenagers on their escape route, stopped near Belvue farm, north of Columbia, to fix a flat tire. They were spotted and approached by a posse of men with flashlights. Frank Gartman, a local auto dealer, warned the fugitives to surrender; and, they opened fire killing Gartman."

"The Caldwell Parish courthouse was closed all day Friday, March 7, 1941, for the occasion of the hanging of the four escapees captured by the posse. Two of the men, Boyce and Heard are buried in the Columbia Cemetery. Landers is buried in Jena and McHarg's body was taken back to Missouri."

Today, Columbia, the parish seat of Caldwell Parish, has a population of 477. A thesis written by C. S. Lecky in 1937 is a good study of the early history of the area. Three volumes of Caldwell Parish in Slices, published by H. Ted Woods in 1972 chronicles the stories/folklore of Columbia and Caldwell Parish in a very readable format. Many brochures and booklets are available to direct the wanderers who take a day to try and soak up the town. One day is not enough. We shall return. Perhaps when the dogwoods are blooming on cemetery Hill.

Special events in Columbia:
Riverboat Festival- 3rd Saturday in May
Lion's Club Rodeo- Second week in June
Louisiana Art and Folk Festival- 2nd Saturday in October
Witch Way to Main Street- Halloween Season
Caldwell Country Christmas- 1st Saturday in December
Group tour information: Polly Harrelson, Main Street Manager, 318 649 2138.