Shot Clock


This clock haunted me from the first time I saw it. If I had been in an art museum or gallery, I would have interpreted its gaping bullet hole as an artist’s anguished gesture of protest against the inexorable passage of time. But seeing it in Telling New Mexico, the long-term core exhibition of New Mexico History Museum, the clock drew me into its backstory.

The tiny initials S T in Gothic script on the dial and an elaborate set of instructions on a paper label that I later discovered inside its oak case identify it as a clock made by the Seth Thomas Clock Company. The Connecticut firm supplied many such devices to railroad companies, the most famous being the four-sided clock that is still the centerpiece of New York’s Grand Central Station.

The museum’s clock originally hung in the waiting room of the depot of the El Paso and Southwestern System, built around 1902 in the small town of Columbus, New Mexico, on the Mexican border.

In the early hours of March 9, 1916, a troop under the command of the famed Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa crossed the border to raid the town and its nearby army cavalry camp for much-needed supplies. As gunfire broke out, a bullet pierced the railroad depot clock and severed its pendulum, stopping the works at precisely 4:12 a.m. When dawn came, some eighteen residents and soldiers lay dead along with over a hundred Villistas, but the rest of the troop had ridden off.

The United States retaliated with a massive force of 10,000 soldiers headed by General John “Black Jack” Pershing, penetrating 420 miles into Mexico in pursuit of the charismatic Mexican general. Revered as “The Lion of the North,” Villa evaded capture in the desert mountains of his native Chihuahua, but the fruitless chase offered Pershing an opportunity to test the latest advances in mechanized warfare with automotive vehicles and even airplanes, which would soon be used in World War I.

Just ten days after the raid, the stationmaster, Lewis Turner Jaggers, who had escaped harm with his family in their upstairs quarters at the depot, wrote his superintendent asking for permission to keep the stopped clock as a personal souvenir. It was his daughters who donated “what had been a matter of pride and a conversation piece in our family” to the Museum of New Mexico in 1996.

The depot building is now the Columbus History Museum, and the site of the military camp is Pancho Villa Park. Every March 9 for the past fourteen years, the town has commemorated the raid with a celebration of international friendship, featuring a cavalcade of Mexican and US horsemen from the border. But for thousands of visitors to the History Museum in Santa Fe, its unforgettable witness is the clock, stopped by a bullet, that bears eloquent testament to the early morning hour when time paused to put Columbus, New Mexico, on the map of history.

Penelope Hunter-Stiebel was a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Portland Art Museum before settling in Santa Fe. Her essays on the furniture that Jesse Nusbaum and Sam Hudelson created for the New Mexico Museum of Art appeared in the spring 2013 issue of El Palacio. With this first installment of “Why This?” she inaugurates a regular column for the magazine.