Columbia is located in the very northeastern tip of Houston County in the very southeastern part of the state. It has a mayor/city council form of government.
Purcell-Killingsworth House The town of Columbia was founded in 1820, as advancing settlers occupied land ceded by the Creeks in the Treaty of Fort Jackson. Columbia, the oldest settlement in Houston County, served as county seat of what was then Henry County from 1826 to 1833, with a post office being established there in April 1828. Columbia quickly became an important riverboat trading stop, serving the surrounding farms and plantations. By the 1830s, a college had been established in town, and the town had at least one hotel serving drivers on the stagecoach line.
During the Civil War, the town raised a force that came to be known as the Columbia Blues. Columbia continued to serve as an important port during the war, this time as an embarkation point for Confederate troops and a supply depot. After Reconstruction, Columbia once again became a thriving trade center for steamboat traffic on the Chattahoochee River. The town incorporated in 1870, but the incorporation lapsed soon after. The Central of Georgia Railroad built a spur there in 1889. Columbia also had a cotton gin, a brick yard, a blacksmith shop, grist mills along Omussee Creek, and one of the most popular schools in the county, as well as numerous stores and shops. In the 1890s, the town dug an artesian well and constructed a water system. The town was incorporated on April 29, 1880.
Columbia’s fortunes took a turn for the worse after the town refused to pay the Alabama Midland Railroad to bring another rail line through in 1889; it went through Dothan instead. In 1900, renowned showboat captains Augustus Byron French and Callie French settled in Columbia. When she was awarded her master’s license for piloting steamboats in 1892, Callie French became the first woman in the nation to hold both a pilot’s license and a master’s license. She died in 1935 and was buried in the town cemetery. The branch county courthouse closed in 1903 when the legislature formed Houston County and Dothan was selected as the new county seat. Increasing competition from railroads eventually put steamboats out of business, and along with them went a large part of Columbia’s economy. From 1914 until a destructive flood in April 1928, Columbia was served by two electric generating plants that supplied power to the area.
In 1958, Georgia brothers John, Alfred, and Clarence Anglin robbed the Bank of Columbia and were apprehended soon after. John and Clarence would, in 1962, become two of the very small group of inmates who escaped from Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary off the coast of San Francisco, California. They were never seen again, and they are presumed to have drowned.
In 1962, the federal government constructed the George W. Andrews Lock and Dam on the Chattahoochee River one mile south of Columbia, and Alabama built a state dock in 1963 to increase river trade and traffic and to boost the area’s economy. Other economic development came from a paper mill built in the 1960s, the opening of the Columbia Blouse Company in 1964, and Reactor 1 of the Farley Nuclear Plant, constructed five miles south of Columbia in 1977.
According to 2020 Census estimates, Columbia recorded a population of 832. Of that number, 86.9 percent of respondents identified themselves as white, 10.2 percent as African American, 1.6 percent as two or more races, and 0.8 percent as Hispanic or Latino. The town’s median household income was $51,563, and the per capita income was $26,070.
According to 2020 Census estimates, the work force in Columbia was divided among the following industrial categories:
- Retail trade (32.9 percent)
- Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, and extractive (21.6 percent)
- Educational services, and health care and social assistance (10.4 percent)
- Construction (6.7 percent)
- Transportation and warehousing and utilities (6.4 percent)
- Professional, scientific, management, and administrative and waste management services (6.1 percent)
- Arts, entertainment, recreation, and accommodation and food services (5.5 percent)
- Finance, insurance, and real estate, rental, and leasing (3.0 percent)
- Other services, except public administration (2.7 percent)
- Public administration (2.7 percent)
- Manufacturing (1.8 percent)
Schools in Columbia are part of the Houston County school system; the town has one high school.
State Highway 52 runs roughly east-west through Columbia, and State Highway 95 runs north-south through the town. The Chattahoochee & Gulf Railroad Company operates a line through Columbia.
Events and Places of Interest
The Omusee Creek Public Use Area is located at the south end of town and has two boat ramps. Columbia holds an annual River City Festival on the third Saturday in May. It features craft and food vendors, children’s activities, and live music. The Old Columbia Jail is listed on the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage. The Purcell-Killingsworth House (1890) is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Houston County Heritage Book Committee. The Heritage of Houston County, Alabama. Clanton, Ala.: Heritage Publishing Consultants, 2003.
Watson, Fred S. Hub of the Wire Grass: A History of Houston County, Alabama, 1903-1972. Anniston, Ala.: Higginbotham, Inc., 1972.