Curving north from the Mason-Dixon, this Susquehanna River road is a pig’s tail curl. We’re driving the eastern bank, toward the river towns of Columbia, Marietta and Wrightsville. The woods we weave haven’t changed much since the Confederate Army marched the opposite shore.
These towns are watersheds in the War Between the States - or the Northern War of Aggression, depending on your point of view. In the summer of 1863, thousands of Confederate soldiers attempt to cross the Susquehanna to capture Harrisburg. But a few citizen volunteers burn their own Columbia-Wrightsville bridge and force General Lee’s finest to head west toward the twilight zone of Gettysburg.
144 summers later, we’re on this Civil War trail hunting for signs of old river town life. We find it within a thriving artisan culture of twisted iron and blackened catfish. Where people still make things with their hands.
It begins off the corkscrew river road, on an alley among the brick rows and barbershops of vintage Columbia. In a backstreet factory called Susquehanna Glass, folks have cut patterns by hand into gorgeous glassware for 100 years. Upstairs we meet Sandy Miller, who’s been cutting glass here for a third of them. Order glassware from fancy-schmancies like Williams-Sonoma, chances are she’s making it for you.
Within seconds, Sandy uses a whirling wheel to etch a tall ship into a tall glass. “What about seagulls,” she muses. And birds appear in flight with a flick of her ample wrists. “Aw,” she shrugs as we gasp. “Some people have a natural knack and this is mine.” Sandy hands us the cut tumbler and we can’t wait to sail her ship through a highball sea come happy hour.
We’re eager for the view from the rebel side, so we head across the 1930 concrete-arch bridge some locals still call “the new one.” For as long as they’ve cut glass on one side, the John Wright Foundry has been forging all manner of cast-iron marvels on the other. Stove grates and lampposts, and the pan in which our grandmother fried “dip eggs” in bacon grease.
Today the old foundry includes a ground-floor bistro with a wide river view. We sip iced tea and daydream about the blazing bridge that lit up history here back in ‘63. Up in the second floor store, we grab a cast-iron fajita griddle and giggle at the factory-outlet price.
Back in the ragtop, griddle and glassware secure, we head up out of town through fertile fields, to a mountaintop panorama of the Susquehanna sliding by. Sharing the view is Jim and Sue Miller’s Moon Dancer Winery, a dream come true for a couple of recovering white collars.
Grapes love the riverside hill as much as the Millers. Jim pours us some tasty Riesling, but it’s their Blue Moon Port that makes us grin. A tour of the cellar shows off a great collection of Pennsylvania oak barrels, where Jim and Sue serve candlelit dinners among the casks.
With Port and Riesling in the ragtop’s trunk, it’s across the river again, north until we park in front of the Petit Museum of the Musical Boxes, a tinkling miracle in the heart of beautiful Marietta. This town is timeless Americana: the 1st National Bank, the restored theater, the Old Town Hall. On Market Street we expect to run into Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed.
“It’s a wonderful life here,” says a woman of a certain age, sitting on her spotless brickhouse stoop. “And it gets prettier every afternoon.” In the golden light, we ask our new friend where we might find a proper supper. She tells us Josephine’s, up the block, has crab cakes “big as my head.” She winks and throws a challenge. “Then again, if you like it hot, you might try to find Prudhomme’s Lost Cajun Kitchen.”
Turns out Dave Prudhomme’s uncle is the legendary New Orleans Chef Paul, who turned blackened fish into phenomena. Dave fell for Sharon and Sharon hails from Columbia and that’s why this Prudhomme’s Cajun Kitchen feels a little “lost.” But step inside and you’re on the bayou with ‘gator on the menu and zydeco in the air. And the whole family cooks like the devil on fire.
We dive into a bowl of the best gumbo this side of Lake Pontchartrain. Dave grins through his goatee and sets down a plate of Shrimp Sunny: blackened catfish on a bed of crabmeat, slathered with crawfish étouffée, surrounded by succulent shrimp. One bite and Cajun fiddles two-step across our tongues. Awesome.
“All from scratch,” Dave hugs me. “All with our own two hands.” And right there that’s the spirit of the river towns. Like when they need to turn back invading Confederates, a few townies take it in their hands to save the Union. And here we sit today, wolfing hand-made Deep South gumbo in a gritty waterfront community where hard work will never be a dirty thought.
Tomorrow we get up early to beat the farmers to the Central Market in downtown York. So we have to say g’night to Dave and Sharon and head for bed-and-breakfast at The Columbian, a Victorian mansion just a couple blocks from the National Watch and Clock Museum. Which leads us to a whole other story of hands, best saved for a whole other time. While we’re waiting, we’ll look for you along the bends and backroads.
When you hit the road, here’s where to stop. For a complete map and photos of all this, check out www.visitpa.com/shunpiker.
This old roadhouse is big with the locals. We played shuffleboard bowling and tucked away the best cheesesteak west of Roxboro. “It oughta be good,” grumped our barmaid. “He’s been makin’ ‘em for 20-odd years.” 1030 Lancaster Avenue on the east side of Columbia. Call ahead at 717.684.3385.
Susquehanna Glass Factory
Look for the yellow signs.. They point down a back alley, because that’s where the company started 100 years ago. Today, great factory tours and low factory prices. Watch the weather: they close when the temp is above 90. 731 Ave. H in Columbia. Call 800-592-3646 and ask about tours. Online at www.theglassfactory.com.
The Columbian: A Bed & Breakfast Inn
Karen will make you comfy and cook you a great breakfast at this cozy Victorian B&B. Five rooms, each with a privy. And if it’s nice, take your coffee in the lovely backyard garden. Great location at 360 Chestnut Street in Columbia. Reservations: 717-684-0241 and online at www.columbianinn.com.
National Watch and Clock Museum
It’s just a two-minute walk from The Columbian, so make the time to check this place out after breakfast. 514 Poplar Street in Columbia, and on the web at www.nawcc.org.
John Wright Store & Restaurant
At the foot of the beautiful Wrightsville-Columbia Bridge, this great old foundry has a lovely restaurant, a great river view and lots of cast-iron for home, garden and gifts at great prices. North Front Street in Wrightsville. 717.252.2519. Online at www.jwright.com.
Moon Dancer Vineyards & Winery
Jim Miller will share the wine and the Susquehanna view from his gorgeous hillside vineyards. For live music and food festival schedules, visit www.moondancerwinery.com. 1282 Klines Run Road, Wrightsville. 717.252-WINE.
Marietta Walking Tour
The 19th Century architecture is a well-preserved miracle. Enjoy an afternoon stroll through timeless neighborhoods. Visit the community website at www.mariettapa.com.
Prudhomme’s Lost Cajun Kitchen
Alligators, zydeco and hand-cut onion rings, stuffed with crabmeat, topped with pepperjack cheese and broiled till they’re bubbling. Dave and Sharon Prudhomme bring the best of the bayou to the shoals of the Susquehanna at 50 Lancaster Avenue in Columbia. Call 'em at 717-684-1706. Or see for yourself at www.lostcajunkitchen.com. And you’re goofy if you don’t get the gumbo.
Ok, now it’s your turn. Let us know where you’ve been, what you’re eating and who you’re meeting. Send us an email at email@example.com