Van Horn, the county seat of Culberson County, is at the intersection of U.S. highways 80 and 90 and State Highway 54, on the Missouri Pacific Railroad thirty-six miles west of Kent in southwestern Culberson County. The Van Horn Wells were reportedly discovered twelve miles south of the future townsite by Maj. Jefferson Van Horne, who became commander at Fort Bliss in El Paso in 1849, and were well known to nineteenth century travelers. The coaches of the San Antonio-El Paso Mail passed through the area in the late 1850s and early 1860s, when Lt. James Judson Van Horn, no relation to Major Van Horne, was in command of an army garrison at Van Horn Wells. Lieutenant Van Horn's command lasted only two years, from 1859 to 1861, when Confederate forces seized the wells and took him prisoner, but his fame was ensured twenty years later when a town was founded a few miles north and named after him. The town grew up on the Texas and Pacific Railway, which built through the area in 1881. Among the earliest settlers in the area were railroad agent Jack Veats, Thomas Owen or Owens, Ed Hamm, and the families of A. A. (Gus) Cox, J. H. Beach, and Robert K. (Bob) Wylie; the latter two gave their names to nearby mountain ranges. Owen had discovered the Hazel Mine, ten miles northwest of the site of future Van Horn in 1856 but was forced to abandon his claim temporarily due to the Civil War and the ever-present threat of the Mescalero Apaches, who swept down from the Guadalupe and Sierra Diablo Mountains to the north through the 1870s. He returned to Van Horn and later became a justice of the peace. The first person to die in Van Horn was an infant child of the Beach family, in 1881, whereupon Beach gave a plat of land west of town for use as a cemetery. According to local legend, the first adult to die was rancher A. S. Goynes, and his passing was not without irony. In tribute to Van Horn's climate, Goynes supposedly suggested the motto, "This Town Is So Healthy We Had to Shoot a Man to Start a Cemetery," which later hung in the lobby of the Clark Hotel. Shortly thereafter Goynes was shot dead by his brother-in-law in a feud over a watering hole, thereby becoming the first man buried in the Van Horn cemetery.
In 1883 the Texas and Pacific put down wells, which supplied the town for the next twenty-six years. The first store in Van Horn was built in 1886 by W. D. Johnson and a Mr. Hyler; a post office was established in the same year with P. H. Manuss as postmaster. The first school in Van Horn was established in 1887, when Mrs. C. M. Cox taught seven pupils in her home; the first schoolhouse was built in 1893. By 1890 an estimated 450 people were living in the area, and the town had twelve businesses, including a general store, a hotel, a real estate office, a blacksmith, and a lawyer. Two years later, however, the population of the town itself was estimated at only thirty; that year saw the arrival of the family of W. A. King, the section foreman for the railroad. The section house was the largest building in Van Horn, and before the town's first hotel was built the Kings served meals and took boarders. The population had climbed to an estimated seventy by 1896, but the sort of violence that produced the grimly humorous fate of A. S. Goynes persisted. In 1896 R. L. Hall, the owner of the nearby D Ranch, moved to Van Horn, opened the Van Horn Trading Company, and became postmaster. Four years later he was murdered by Red Sealy.
The town continued to grow in the early years of the twentieth century. In 1899 the first Old Settlers' Reunion was held; it would become Van Horn's biggest event, held annually on August 28 and featuring rodeo events, dancing, and a barbecue. In 1910 Robert Espy set the world record for roping and tying a goat (eleven seconds), and Governor William P. Hobby himself attended the 1919 celebration. In 1901 contractor John E. Cox, the son of Gus Cox, built the Cox Building. In 1905 the office building was expanded to house a dance hall, opera house, community center, pool hall, and saloon. From 1911 to 1914, after Culberson County was organized but before a county courthouse had been built, the building also housed the county government. In 1918 it was converted to a hotel, and in 1929 a cafe was added. Today the Clark Hotel, as it came to be known, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A Methodist congregation was organized in 1907, and two years later John Cox built the first church of cement blocks. In 1909 Cox also built the town's second schoolhouse and its first electrical plant, and he also dug Van Horn's first city water well. The Van Horn State Bank opened on August 16 of the same year.
By 1911, when the county was organized, Van Horn was the logical choice to become the county seat. The first county election was held on April 18, 1911, but not until three years later did the county government have its own building. In May 1912 the Culberson County commissioners awarded a contract for construction of a county courthouse to E. E. Churchill of Fort Worth. Clad in locally-quarried sandstone and designed in a vaguely Italian Renaissance style, the courthouse was completed in 1914, at a total cost of $44,335, and immediately became the political and social center of Culberson County life. The balcony over the main entrance, at the rear of the courtroom, provided an ideal place for the residents of Van Horn to watch one another and await their principal daily excitement, the arrival of the afternoon train. The courthouse, which received a medallion from the Texas Historical Commission in 1962, was used until 1965. By 1914, when the new courthouse was completed, Van Horn's population was estimated at 500, and the town had a bank, two newspapers, six cattle breeders, two general stores, a hotel, a telephone company, an ice and feed store, a drugstore, a blacksmith, and a meat market. Despite such signs of growth and sophistication, however, Van Horn could still be a wild place. In 1914 John Marine was appointed the second sheriff of Culberson County, serving out the unexpired term of his predecessor, J. H. Feeley, who had been killed in a gunfight.
In 1927 the estimated population had grown to 800, and in the late 1930s it had reached 1,600. By that time, thanks to the increasing popularity of automobile travel, the completion of U.S. Highway 80, and Van Horn's proximity to the Guadalupe Mountains, sixty miles to the north, the Big Bend, and Carlsbad Caverns, tourism had assumed an increasingly prominent role in the local economy. The railroad arranged day trips by bus to Carlsbad Caverns, newspaper stories trumpeted the excellent hunting (antelope, deer, quail, mountain lion, and bear) in the area, and the town boasted a number of hotels and tourist camps. Van Horn was incorporated on September 1, 1945, and G. M. Langdon was elected the first mayor; among the city government's first orders of business was paying $25,000 for the privately-owned water plant, three wells, and a 13,000-gallon tank. By the late 1940s the town had sixty businesses and an estimated population of 2,070. The population dropped to an estimated 1,151 in the early 1950s, but climbed again to 1,953 a decade later. It had grown from 2,436 in the mid-1960s to 2,916 by the end of the decade and peaked at 3,290 in the early 1970s. The population then began to drop, falling to 2,930 in 1990 and 2,435 in 2000. Local residents have not lacked for ingenuity in their efforts to attain new levels of economic prosperity. In the late 1970s M. J. Mitchell, the president of the Van Horn chamber of commerce, formally invited British Airways to make Van Horn one of the Concorde's regular stops. Citing the area's minimal air traffic, sparse population, and convenient location midway between the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, Mitchell promised to renovate the Van Horn airport to accommodate the supersonic jets and offered British Airways the rent-free use of a thousand acres for fifty years, but the airline opted to make New York and Washington, D.C., its stateside terminals instead. An equally imaginative but somewhat less ambitious (and more successful) scheme was that of a California real estate company that bought 15,000 acres south of Van Horn in 1976 and began a heavy advertising campaign with four-color brochures and television commercials featuring James Drury of The Virginian in cowboy garb. The company offered five or ten acre lots at $500 or more per acre, and within a year had sold more than 12,000 acres, despite the fact that the land lacked water, sewage, gas, or electrical systems, and despite the fact that neighboring ranchland was available for only $40 to $100 an acre. Around the same time the University of Texas undertook a seven-year study to determine the best site in the state to grow grapes. It came down to Van Horn and Bakersfield, in Pecos County, but Bakersfield won. More practical, perhaps, were the various plans to take advantage of the area's mineral resources. In 1967 the Elcor Chemical Corporation caused great excitement when it announced plans to build a $26 million dollar plant to recover sulfur from gypsum thirty-five miles northeast of town. The plant, the first of its kind, was expected to attract some eighty families to Van Horn and in 1968 poured some six million dollars into the local economy, but the market was low and the plant closed two years later. Several other businesses based on mineral resources met with more success. Among these were the Heath Transit Mix Concrete Company, established in 1958; Gifford-Hill and Company, producing crushed stone; Southern Clay Products, producing ground soapstone; and the Milwhite Company, manufacturing talc products for the ceramic tile and insecticide industries, all of which were still in operation in 1990. But tourism remained the town's principal industry. With the completion of Interstate Highway 10 and the establishment of the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, some 10,000 vehicles passed through Van Horn every day; one of them was the specially modified bus of television football commentator John Madden, a famous nonflyer, who in a Time magazine profile twice mentioned a favorite Mexican restaurant in Van Horn. In the late 1980s the town had fifteen motels, seven of which were owned by East Indians.