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Columbus, New Mexico — Pancho Villa and the Railroad Depot Museum

By Allen Rosenberg, Museum Director

Last updated on Sunday, January 05, 2003

The Railroad Depot Museum Photo courtesy Railroad Depot Museum.
The Railroad Depot Museum
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. Here in Columbus, New Mexico, the same holds true. Some of our 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.

Here in Columbus, we saw the results of his raid. Over 500 Villista’s attacked our town in the predawn hours of March 9, 1916. By the time the raid was over, one half the invaders were killed or wounded and 18 Americans were dead. This was the last time a foreign government invaded the Continental United States.

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 our 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. It wasn’t uncommon to hear the drivers shouting "giddy up" and "whoa" instead of pushing the proper pedals in the vehicles. 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 sidenote, 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.

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. Now we are up to about the size of the village at the time of the raid, around 1700 people. We still maintain our rural character but with a surprise or two for the visitors to our area.

Our Railroad Depot Museum was the railroad depot at the time of the raid and was one of the principal targets. 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. The only real casualty was a wall clock that stopped when it was hit by a bullet and recorded the time of the start of the raid. The clock is currently being held in Santa Fe and will only return when we can guarantee its safety. The museum has an excellent collection of photos of scenes taken both in Columbus and throughout the area of the Punitive Expedition. Watch the videos that were made about Pancho Villa and his raid. Examine the artifacts of the soldiers stationed here and imagine spending a winter chasing after a bandit at high altitudes in the mountains of Chihuahua, Mexico. Look at the display of weapons that were used on both sides. We also have a copy of Pancho Villa’s death mask as well as one of his sombreros.

When you have had your fill of death and destruction, the other rooms in the depot will give you an idea of life on the frontier around the turn of the century. Costumes and implements fill the walls and display cases. We even have some railroad memorabilia. In May of 2000, a painting of our entire air force of early 1916 was unveiled in town. Three days later the painting was presented to the Pentagon in Washington, DC. We are proud to offer signed and numbered prints for sale.

Columbus is located three miles from the Mexican border and is the only crossing point in New Mexico that is open 24 hours a day. Many of the visitors to the museum are from across the border. When you visit, be sure to sign our guest book. Our phone number is 505-531-2620.

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