Columbus, the county seat and largest city of Colorado County, is at the junction of Interstate Highway 10 and State Highway 71, sixty-five miles west of Houston, on a small rise south and west of a lazy horseshoe bend in the Colorado River. It is on the site of the legendary Indian village of Montezuma. Members of Stephen F. Austin's Old Three Hundred began arriving in the area in 1821; in late December Robert H. Kuykendall, his brother Joseph, and Daniel Gilleland moved from a newly established settlement on the Brazos River, later known as Washington-on-the-Brazos, to a site on the Colorado River near that of present Columbus. By 1823 a small community had developed. It became known as Beeson's Ferry or Beeson's Ford, named for Benjamin Beeson, one of the original settlers, who operated a ferry across the Colorado River. In 1835 it was renamed Columbus, allegedly at the suggestion of a former resident of Columbus, Ohio. The town began as a river crossing and became the seat of local government in 1822, when Austin's colony was divided into two autonomous districts by Mexican governor José F. Trespalacios. Trespalacios had the Baron de Bastrop travel to the Colorado River District to supervise local elections. Gathering at Beason's Crossing, the residents elected John J. Tumlinson, Sr., alcalde, Robert Kuykendall captain, and Moses Morrison lieutenant. Austin had intended to locate his headquarters here and even laid out a town the following year, but finally opted for a more promising location on the Brazos River. No doubt the frequent Indian attacks in the Colorado River District and poor drainage influenced his decision to relocate his headquarters.
By the time of the Texas Revolution, this settlement, now known as Columbus, was home to over twenty-five families, including that of William D. Lacey, one of the signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence. The community had a ferry, a cotton gin, a gristmill, a sawmill, and a small inn or boardinghouse for travelers. Sam Houston camped on the east bank of the Colorado River at Columbus from March 19 to 26, 1836, during the Runaway Scrape, as he retreated from Gonzales to San Jacinto. Although Houston had Columbus burned when he departed, a traveler noted in 1837 that the refurbished town had two public houses, two stores, half a dozen shanties, and quite a bit of gambling. Another traveler passing through Columbus around 1847 found the little town excited over a horse race; bets ranged up to $500. At that time Columbus had twenty houses, three stores, two taverns, and a blacksmith but showed no evidence of growth. Evidently, horse racing, betting, and drinking, along with chewing tobacco and spitting, were favorite pastimes in Columbus, as well as in most of Texas throughout the nineteenth century. The Beacon Hill Blood Stock Farm, owned by Dr. Robert H. Harrison, had a racetrack and was reportedly the best in the state. Eventually, the Columbus Quarter Horse Racetrack was established a few miles east of town. It was quite popular into the twentieth century.
Columbus was designated the county seat of Colorado County when the county was established in 1836. The following year the county was organized, and in April Judge Robert McAlpin (Three Legged Willie) Williamson reportedly convened the first district court in Colorado County in the shade of a large oak tree near the site of the present courthouse. The trunk of the tree, long since dead, still sports a historical plaque and for a time provided the background for yearly reenactments of the original court. Columbus was then the largest settlement in the county, with a population of 1,500. The following year, as a local story has it, lumber was cut from the pine forest near the site of present Bastrop for the construction of a courthouse. An obstruction was placed in the Colorado River near Columbus, and the logs were floated downriver, but the obstruction failed and the lumber was lost. The first of the county's three courthouses was finally constructed in 1847.
In 1839, a year after the lumber incident, Col. Robert Robson moved to Columbus from Dumfries, Scotland, and built a castle, complete with a drawbridge and moat, on the south bank on the Colorado River north of town. Robson's Castle was constructed of concrete made from locally produced lime and gravel. It was three stories high and had a large ballroom and roof garden. A cistern on the roof provided running water piped throughout the castle. Robson hosted many parties in the castle's ballroom, and Dr. Lawrence Washington, grand-nephew of President George Washington, held Episcopal services there. The foundations of the castle were undermined by a flood in 1869. In 1883 it was torn down, and a beef-packing plant was built on the site.
Columbus was incorporated on August 22, 1866, after the Civil War, under the legislative act of January 28, 1858. The latter half of the nineteenth century was marred by almost continual violence. A fresh wave of killings in 1906 prompted the citizens of Columbus to petition the mayor and city council to reestablish the office of city marshall, which had been abolished in 1903. The council voted three to two against the measure. Incensed by the council's lack of responsiveness, the citizens then approached county judge J. J. Mansfield, who ordered an election to decide the fate of the city charter. By a vote of ninety-nine to thirty-five, Columbus was disincorporated, and the county commissioners' court took over daily operation of city government. Columbus remained unincorporated until 1927, by which time the population had risen to 3,100. The population declined during the Great Depression and did not climb above 3,000 again until the mid-1950s. Even during the third decade of the century, violence continued to mar life in the town. On November 12, 1935, two young African-American men—Bennie Mitchell, Jr., and Ernest Collins—who had been arrested for the rape and murder of a young woman named Geraldine Kollman, were hanged by a mob at what became known as the “Hanging Tree.” Following their arrests in October, authorities took Mitchell and Collins to Houston for protection, but when the two teenagers were returned to Columbus for a court hearing, a mob lynched both.
The first major industry to arise in Columbus, apart from smithies, was a German cigar factory, established around 1840. As more Germans turned from tobacco to cotton production, the importance of the cigar factory declined, and it eventually ceased to operate; by 1880 tobacco production in the area was of little importance. The next major industry developed around cotton. Cottonseed oil was a very important commodity. In the early 1880s several oil mills were built in Colorado County. At least one of these was in Columbus, built by the Columbus Oil Company in 1881. But hard times came in 1884, and R. E. Stafford foreclosed on the mill. It was sold at public auction and dismantled. The 1870s showed a dramatic increase in cotton production in Colorado County. In 1880, 15,552 bales was produced; although this was only an 8 percent increase over the 14,438 bales produced in 1860, it was a full 456 percent increase over the 2,796 bales produced in 1870. This increase was accompanied by a similar growth in the number of farms, from 397 in 1860 to 456 in 1870 and 1,666 in 1880. Cattle production also peaked in the early 1880s, at 108,368 head. This increase prompted Stafford to establish the Columbus Meat and Ice Company in 1883 on the site of Robson's Castle near the north bridge. Stafford planned to take advantage of the large supply of local beef and ship it to markets in Europe and the North. The packing plant had a capacity of 250 cattle and forty tons of ice per day but normally processed only around 25 to 100 head per day.
Large deposits of sand and gravel in and around Columbus helped give birth to the next major industry to flourish in the area. Gravel pits were first dug by the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railway just west of Glidden in 1906. By 1910 Columbus was virtually surrounded by gravel pits. Four additional companies were formed in that year alone. Gravel production has continued to be a major source of economic prosperity over the years, with only moderate declines during the Great Depression. In addition to its economic contribution, the prevalence of an inexpensive source of local gravel also made road construction affordable.
Columbus grew steadily after World War II, as the local economy became increasingly focused on recreational activities. For Columbus this focus centered on historic buildings and a down-home atmosphere. In 1961 a group of civic leaders organized the Magnolia Homes Tour, a nonprofit organization established to preserve the unique local culture, traditions, and heritage of Columbus as embodied in its historic buildings. Tours are conducted on the first and third Thursdays of each month and include the Stafford Opera House, the Senftenberg-Brandon House Museum, the Alley Log Cabin Museum, the Dilue Rose Harris House Museum, and the Mary Elizabeth Youens Hopkins Santa Claus Museum. Other historic buildings in the area include the Confederate Memorial Museum, in the brick-based Water Tower (1883), the Brunson Building (1891), the Raumonda house (1887), the Gant house (ca. 1870), and the Colorado County Courthouse (1891). In 1990 Columbus had four banks with assets totaling over $907,000, two elementary, one junior, and one high school with 1,569 students enrolled, a library, two weekly newspapers, and a radio station. The citizens were also served by three hospitals or clinics with a forty-bed capacity and four hotels with a total of 232 rooms. Columbus had 3,916 inhabitants and 326 businesses in 2000. The population figure fell to 3,655 in 2010.