Columbus is a sleepy, small town of 1765 people (as of April 1, 2000) about 3 miles north of the Mexican border and 32 miles south of Deming. Dating from the early 1890s, the town started to prosper and grow when the El Paso & Southwestern Railroad arrived in 1902-3. By 1916, there were more than 700 people (or only 3-500, depending on which book you read) living in Columbus, and the army’s 13th Calvary had a camp (Furlong) of 400 troops on the south side of the tracks. It had been designated an official port of entry to the US and business was good.
All that changed during the early morning hours of March 9, 1916 when 3-500 Villistas attacked the village, looting and killing. Pancho Villa himself probably never entered town, but remained at the staging area. (He released an American captive from an earlier raid in Mexico at campsite #13.) Most of the soldiers were asleep with their weapons and ammunition locked up in the arsenal. When they finally were able to retrieve their weapons and get their machine guns loaded properly, they drove off the raiders. By day break when the smoke cleared, 8 soldiers, 10 civilians and 200+ Villistas were dead, and the Commercial Hotel and several other buildings had burned to the ground. Most of the businesses had been broken into and looted.
Within a week of the attack, Columbus became the staging area for General John J. Pershing’s eleven-month campaign with 10,000 troops in northern Mexico searching for Villa—whom he never found. Instead, the Punitive Expedition prepared Pershing’s troops for fighting in World War I, defining the role of airplanes in reconnaissance and armored vehicles in combat.
After World War II, train traffic declined and on December 15, 1961, the last train stopped in Columbus. The tracks were removed in 1965. The old depot was saved by the Columbus Historical Society, and it now houses a small museum of local artifacts.
In addition to the depot, the U. S. Customs House (now the state park’s visitor center) and the Hoover Hotel remain standing. In the state park, the ruins of the judge advocate’s office and the U. S. Army’s first grease ramp can be seen, as well as Camp Furlong’s recreation hall. The park also contains an extensive cactus garden with paths that wind their way up to the top of Coote’s Hill.