For more than 150 years, Fort Bliss has played a critical role in the defense of the United States and the growth of El Paso. From mule saddles to Abrams tanks, Fort Bliss has long been a proving ground for the latest in military technology. Today, its desert terrain serves as a training ground for troops and equipment deploying to the Middle East.
As the Army base transfers from missile defense to armored training, its vital role takes on a new challenge and exciting growth for all of El Paso. Fort Bliss employs almost 7,000 civilians, making it El Paso's second-largest employer after El Paso Independent School District. Fort Bliss pumps almost $2 billion into El Paso's economy annually, and that figure is expected to increase as the base continues to grow.
The base area is about the size of Rhode Island and straddles the Texas and New Mexico border. Its 1,500 square miles of restricted airspace made it perfect for missile and artillery training and testing. Fort Bliss is transitioning from air defense to heavy armor training as the 1st Armored Division rolls in. More than 30,000 troops are transferring from Germany to El Paso, increasing the area's population and economic growth. By 2013, Fort Bliss' population is expected to triple.
Fort Bliss was established in 1846, during the Mexican-American War, and afterward primarily served to protect settlers against Apache and Comanche raids. It was named in 1854 after Brevet Lt. Col. William Wallace Smith Bliss, Gen. Zachary Taylor's adjutant general during the Mexican-American War.
Gen. John Pershing launched his failed punitive pursuit of Pancho Villa into Mexico from Fort Bliss following Villa's attack on Columbus, N.M. (George Patton served as an aide to Pershing). While Pershing's 1916-1917 campaign didn't track down Villa, it did afford the testing of new armored vehicles, cars, and airplanes, which were used extensively in World War I. Fort Bliss began its transition from a cavalry post to a modern warfare proving ground. With the increased use of airplanes in warfare, anti-aircraft artillery became more important, and the wideopen spaces of Fort Bliss provided the perfect training ground, just as adjacent White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico provided perfect rocket testing grounds.
After World War II, captured German rocket scientists, including Wernher von Braun, were brought to Fort Bliss to continue their research for the United States. The German V-1 and V-2 guided missiles were brought here as well and studied, contributing to the United State's guided missile and space program. Today, tanks and armored vehicles prowl the desert, training for deployment overseas.
You can learn more about the history of Fort Bliss and the different roles it has played in American defense by visiting the Old Fort Bliss Children's Cultural Learning Center (formerly Old Fort Bliss Magoffinsville Post Museum, Building 5054), and the separate Old Ironsides Infantry Museum (formerly the Air Defense Artillery Museum, Building 1735). The learning center explores life at Old Fort Bliss from 1853 to 1868 through monthly re-enactments and displays. The Old Ironsides Infantry Museum features tanks, armored vehicles, and other items from the 1st Armored Division's distinguished history. A V-2 rocket and other towering missiles from the base's air defense history are displayed as well. Contact Old Fort Bliss Children's Cultural Learning Center at 915-568-4518 and the Old Ironsides Infantry Museum at 915-568-5412.
From El Paso International Airport, travel north on Airport Road to Airway Boulevard. The Robert E. Lee entrance gate is on the left. Be prepared to show identification and vehicle insurance and registration to the guard. You'll receive a day pass and directions. The museums are free and open 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday.