Columbus Train Depot Museum...
Mar 25, 2015
|What vision comes to mind when you hear the name Pancho Villa? Bandit, hero, valiant leader, ruthless tyrant? All of those names have been associated with him. He was not an easy man to define; it would depend on when you met him during his career. In Columbus, New Mexico, the same holds true. Some of the citizens have been told by their older relatives that he was a defender of the people. Others say he killed many of his countrymen in their villages. Over 600 bandits raided the town in the predawn hours of March 9, 1916. By the time the raid was over, eight soldiers, ten civilians & 200+ villistas lost their lives. The villistas wanted loot, money and goods to help finance their war against the Nationalist Army. Shots were fired at the depot, which was closed for the night. But the only real casualty inside the depot was a wall clock that stopped when it was hit by a bullet and recorded the time of the start of the raid.
In retaliation for the raid, President Wilson formed a military group to attack and capture Pancho Villa under the leadership of General "Black Jack" Pershing. In the space of one week, Pershing not only drew up the logistical plan for the campaign, but actually had troops on the way to Columbus where he would march into Mexico. In a remarkably short time, the Punitive Expedition entered Mexico and tried to track Villa to his lair. With all the men, horses, mules and might of 10,000 troops, 11 months later the army had never once met up with Villa’s main force. They fought many small battles but never a big one. This was guerrilla warfare at its most effective. We were the foreign invaders. Everyone was against us even if they weren’t for Villa.
It was an educational time for our armed forces. This was the first time that Americans used mechanized vehicles in combat. This included cars and trucks (purchased on the open market) from auto dealers in El Paso and other locations. At that time, cars were not in general use; the drivers were given rudimentary instructions and told to drive. The first armored vehicles were used here. They were the forerunners of tanks. Motorcycles also were used in combat conditions. They (and mules) often would have machine guns mounted as they rode into combat. As an interesting side note, the regular paths that people used to get from one village to another were too rough for our vehicles so the Army Corp of Engineers improved the road between Columbus and Casas Grande, Mexico.
This effort also included the first use of airplanes in combat conditions. Our entire air force (eight planes) was stationed in Columbus, a squadron of the signal corps. Up to this time, planes were used to carry messages. Here, since they were underpowered, they flew so low they would draw fire from people on the ground. In self-defense, they carried grenades as bombs and shot back at the ground troops. The planes were also used as observers for the first time; they located suspected enemies and carried the news back to the troops. It was an exciting time for the U.S. Troops. More than twenty thousand troopers gained experience in combat conditions which proved to be of great value as the U.S. entered into the European theater the following year when they returned from Mexico. And this was the last time a foreign government invaded the Continental United States before the 9/11/2001 attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
What effect did this have on Columbus? While the troops were here, Columbus was the largest settlement in New Mexico. But when they left, it became smaller than before. Over the years the town dwindled in size until the trains stopped running in the 1950s. The population dropped to around 200 and the village was listed in many locations and guides as a ghost town. The current population is the size of the village at the time of the raid, around 1700 people.
This post covers our visit to the Railroad Depot Museum which was the railroad depot at the time of the raid and was one of the principal targets.
The El Paso & Southwestern Railroad was completed in 1902. This depot was built in 1909 & 3 trains a day stopped here. In 1912 the 13th Calvary set up their "Camp at Columbus" just south of the depot. Now 10 trains a day stopped. In the early 1920's Southern Pacific took over the line. During the depression one train a day stopped. During WWII forty trains a day stopped for service. December 1961 saw the last train & the tracks were removed in 1965. In front of the museum there is a EP & SW rail car of the period on display. The historical society formed in 1973 to help save the old depot. By 1975 they obtained possession of the building & made it into a local history museum.
The museum has an excellent collection of photos of scenes taken both in Columbus and throughout the area of the Punitive Expedition as well as artifacts of the soldiers stationed here. There is an impressive display of weapons that were used on both sides and a copy of Pancho Villa’s death mask as well as one of his sombreros. The other rooms in the depot give an idea of life on the frontier around the turn of the century. Costumes and implements fill the walls and display cases. We thoroughly enjoyed this museum, the guys especially loved it! Well displayed & the volunteers were both friendly & informative. Well worth your time if you get into the area!
As we were heading out the volunteers let us know that the 12th Annual Camp Furlong Day was being held at Pancho Villa State Park on Saturday. This event promotes friendship & goodwill between the US & Mexico. So of course we decided to come back. But more on that later! Hope you enjoy the museum :)