Saturday, March 22, 2008


The last train to travel what began as the El Paso & Southwestern railroad stopped in Columbus, New Mexico, on December 20, 1961. The track, built to move ore from the mines in southern Arizona to El Paso, Texas, was removed not long afterwards. Between its beginning as an ore hauler and it's decline and removal, it played an important role in an historic event.

As we drove from Douglas, Arizona, to Columbus, New Mexico, yesterday, we followed the bed of the abandoned railway through mile upon mile of mostly unpopulated borderlands. Ranches, tiny towns, and a few temporary border patrol camps were the only signs of settlement.

So, why did we come to tiny Columbus, New Mexico? It has a wonderful state park (read our campground review here), and an interesting history - and this year we decided to take the time to explore it.

The town, 2.8 square miles, has a current population of under 2,000, and is designated a National Historic Site. Why? Because it is the site of the last attack on the continental US by foreign troops, by Pancho Villa in March of 1916. Ten of the citizens of Columbus were killed, along with eight U.S. soldiers and over 100 "Villistas", Pancho Villa's soldiers.

Following the raid, President Wilson ordered General John "Black Jack" Pershing to retaliate, to either capture or kill Pancho Villa. Small Ft. Furlong was used as a staging area - and is now the site of Pancho Villa State Park.

What makes the "Punitive Expedition" into Mexico so interesting is that it was the first time in American history that motorized vehicles and aircraft were used in warfare. A fleet of trucks, a few cars, and eight obsolete biplanes were hastily shipped to Columbus, and on March 15, Pershing led his troops (around 10,000 strong) into Mexico.

The First Aero Squadron flew from the nation's first operational airbase right here in Columbus, New Mexico! The onsite museum here in the park has a replica of the biplanes, along with all the standard paraphernalia - soldiers uniforms, mess kits, tents, saddles - and a car with bullet holes in it from the attack.

Scattered throughout the park are several interesting artifacts - the adobe fort headquarters (now protected from the elements by a shed roof) and even "the first grease rack to service U.S. Army automotive equipment engaged in field operations" (made out of concrete and not adjustable!).

Using vehicles to chase the revolutionaries into Mexico didn't work too well. Roads were virtually non-existant, and there were no fueling stations. Fuel and parts often had to be carried by mules to the vehicles.

The expedition fared poorly, didn't find or capture Pancho Villa, and returned to the U.S. 11 months later, exhausted. Not long afterwards, General Pershing left for Europe and World War I.

No specific reason is known for Pancho Villa's raid into the U.S., but local lore suggests it was an act of retaliation - and it involved the railroad. In 1915, the "neutral" U.S. allowed Venustiano Carranza, the new President of Mexico (not acknowledged by Villa) to transport Mexican troops through Texas and New Mexico on the El Paso-Southwestern Railroad from El Paso to Douglas. These troops defeated Villa and his army in Agua Prieta, across from Douglas, Arizona on November 1, 1915 - and may have given Villa a reason to attack Columbus a few months later.

It's all history now, but it comes alive here in Columbus. We loved our huge site here in the state park (only $14/night with 30 amp and water)... we wouldn't mind exploring for a few more days, but reservations and plans keep us moving. Adios, Columbus!

1 comment:

  1. Hi Laurie and Odel: We also have enjoyed exploring Columbus in the past. It was nice to read your comments about it again. Also, great job on the oven. It was fun to read about the process. Have a good trip through Texas and take care.
    Nancy and Jerry