Sunday, November 03, 2013

The Roots of Paris Hilton: San Antonio, New Mexico

Around the turn of the 20th Century, a boy would walk from his father’s mercantile store, which also served as a hotel, to the train depot (shown above), just a short distance away. This boy then carried the luggage of passengers newly arrived in San Antonio, New Mexico back to their rooms, which ran $2.50 a day and included meals. The boy met every train stopping in town, regardless of time or weather. In 1919, that boy, Conrad Hilton, now thirty-two years old, bought the Mobley Hotel in Cisco, Texas and thus began the Hilton Hotels chain. Paris Hilton is his great-granddaughter.

Below is a shot of some almost 100-year-old graffiti from inside the depot. Note the infinity sign/hat brim. Could it be the mark of the original train-hopping Bozo Texino?

San Antonio can trace its history back to 1629 and the founding of the San Antonio de Senecú Mission. The Apaches succeeded in destroying the mission in 1675 and for over 100 years the burnt remains of the village, which had been inhabited by Piro Indians for a mere 700 years prior, slowly decayed out on the plains, a caution to travelers on the nearby Camino Real. Now those ruins have been fully reclaimed by nature and the exact location of San Antonio de Senecú is unknown. On the other hand, the Crystal Palace, below, was once a dance hall and then a much more dilapidated (and photogenic) auto garage, but someone eventually decided to kinda fix it up.

Hispanic farmers from northern New Mexico established present-day San Antonio in 1820 and, when the Santa Fe Railroad arrived in 1880, the town shifted to be closer to the rails. While most of San Antonio’s 1,250 residents still raised livestock, made wine, or even kept bees, the railroad was soon extended 10 miles east to reach the coal mines of Carthage and Tokay. Stakes included a claim known as the Hilton Mine, owned by A.H. “Gus” Hilton, who used the money to found the A.H. Hilton Mercantile Store. Mr. Hilton’s son, Conrad, was born on Christmas Day, 1887.

For almost 50 years the mines paid out, the trains came and went, and stagecoaches ran between White Oaks, Fort Stanton, and Lincoln. However, by 1925, the mines were going bust and the railroad soon took up its tracks. Then two major floods in 1929 washed away a big chunk of the town and the surrounding farmland. WWII lured away most remaining young men and A.H. Hilton’s original mercantile burnt around the same time, which, incidentally, pretty much coincided with Conrad's marriage to Zsa Zsa Gabor. However, Hilton’s wooden bar was saved and installed in the famous Owl Bar and Restaurant in 1945, where it is used to this day to support Tecate and green chile cheeseburgers. The Owl Bar itself was built by Brunswick Balke Collender Company. You might have used their bowling balls.

And that is largely where San Antonio is at today, except for the slight shift to the north, where most business is now conducted along U.S. 380. Not a true ghost town, you still won’t find any trains stopping at the marooned and badly listing depot. Of course, every ghost town aficionado hopes to discover something new, and, while it’s well-known that all that’s left of what could be considered the original Hilton Hotel is its foundation, located across from the old post office (now a restored private residence), I have been unable to find a single picture of the site anywhere. So, as is my wont, I took my own. In fact, I took two. The concrete shown here and below is all that remains of the birthplace of one of the greatest hotel chains in the world, without which Paris Hilton might be living in a trailer out in the Socorro County desert. However, the original ballroom floor from the hotel was reportedly installed in the Wool Warehouse building in Magdalena. It must've been part of a remodeling job as that place was built in 1913. Can anyone get me in to have a look?!

For those Paris Hilton fans wishing to tour the old ruins, I can be hired at a very reasonable price. Please wear sensible shoes and long pants and don’t expect much.

Info for this post came from Varney and Harris. Special thanks to the grandson of the owners of the San Antonio depot for the quick peak inside. Next time we’ll visit the aforementioned Carthage and Tokay. Or, at least, an area the might as well be.

APRIL 2014 UPDATE: Thanks to Jerrysocorro P, a wonderful photo of the A.H. Hilton Merctl Co building has been brought to my attention. Apparently taken in 1909, this is a rare image indeed. It shows the corner on which the above ruins were photographed. Across the street is a building signed as "City Drug Store." This is what was later the post office and still stands as a private residence.

Very interesting to me is the building behind the mercantile. Unfortunately, you can't see it on the downloaded photo, but behind the skeletal tree is a sign on which you can read " OT L". The best way to have a look for yourself is to go to this page. Is this another "Hilton Hotel"? I can't imagine San Antonio supporting two hotels when it couldn't support a bank.

This excellent biography (thanks again, Jerrysocorro P!) on Conrad Hilton mentions a "makeshift hotel" where for $1 you got a room and a hot meal. It also specifically states that there were rooms in the mercantile, although the merc looks rather un-hotel-like. So what is this second apparent hotel? 'Tis a mystery.

Kudos to the University of New Mexico and NMSU for making historical photos like this one available on-line.


Anonymous said...

I finally got to visit these ruins today. It is surprising to me that nobody has bothered to preserve this site, much less mark it with a plaque.

jmhouse said...

It is kind of strange, isn't it? There's a stone monument at the location of Microsoft's first office in Albuquerque, but this site is (almost) totally forgotten.

Anyway, I'm glad you got a look for yourself. Thanks for your comment!

Jerrysocorro P said...

I really enjoyed reading of your adventures in San Antonio. I grew up in the area and am intrigued by the area. I searched on the internet and found the only known picture of the Hilton Mercantile store in San Antonio. Here is a link to the pic, it is very small, I had to paste it to word and blow it up:

There is also a biography video done about Conrad Hilton that shows this picture...
here is a link to that also:

Next time you should explore the school where he carved his name in the wall "C. Hilton 1903"

jmhouse said...

Thanks very much for your comment and the links, Jerrysocorro P. I'd never seen that photo of the Hilton Mercantile before. That's great. I was able to see a slightly larger version by following the "Click here to view the complete record for this item" link. Maybe it's just perspective, but the three men in the middle of the street seem strangely short.

And I'll be sure and watch that biography when I get a chance. But, in the meantime, where is the school with Conrad Hilton's name on the wall?! It's not in San Antonio, is it? I had no idea. I should most definitely check that out!

Thanks again, JM

Jerrysocorro P said...

The school IS in San Antonio about .25 miles north of the Hilton Store. It was a one room school and then a gas station and now a cow barn. The school is for sale along with the neighboring house and 5 acres of irrigated land. Here is a link to the real estate listing

The "C Hilton" carving is visible in one of the listing pictures but is very grainy. We looked at the house when it was for sale but it was damaged in the floods in that area back last fall(the same floods that have the train station leaning sideways).

You probably know this but the bar inside the Owl is from the burned down Hilton Mercantile.

jmhouse said...

That's quite an impressive find! Thanks for passing that all along. Too bad the photo of the carving is so grainy. But it's still readable. I might have to see if I can get a look at that for myself.

I did at least know that the Hilton bar is in the Owl Bar. The only thing I can offer in exchange is that the ballroom floor of the Hilton is in the old Wool Exchange Building in Magdalena. I guess you might've known that, too!

Many thanks again for the tip. That's the kind of info I love! Best, JM

Jerrysocorro P said...

The "OTL" on the building behind the Mercantile is a very good observation... I have probably looked at that picture 100 times and have never seen that before. When you think of how rare this picture is and how few people have looked at it, I bet you are probably the only one to have noticed that. I think it may be significant too... The mercantile was also supposedly a boarding house with crude sleeping arrangements but NOT considered a hotel. Could this picture prove that the first Hilton hotel was actually in San Antonio New Mexico and not in Texas?

jmhouse said...

I am also very intrigued. I must admit that I forwarded the photo to a friend who's a historian and he replied with a mention of the "hotel across the street." That's when I looked closer and saw the partial sign.

In any case, I would be very surprised if someone besides Gus Hilton owned that hotel, but it does remain a mystery...for now.

Thanks for providing all this material, Jerrysocorro P!

Doug Sterling said...

Intriguing. It's somewhat comforting to learn that such wealthy people came from such humble beginnings. I think it gives some hope to others that "it could be them" someday, but I also feel that those who started with nothing and truly earned their way to the top are much more appreciative of what they have.

I wonder what would happen to people like Paris Hilton if they were dropped off in San Antonio and told to actually work for a living - and hardly a living, at that. Maybe it'd make a good TV show.

jmhouse said...

Ha! Yeah, Doug, I'm afraid it probably would be put on TV.

There's also a signature from Conrad Hilton on a wall in a nearby barn. Hilton put the signature there back when it was the San Antonio school. I didn't know about that when I visited, but I really want to see it now.

Thanks for the comment!


O/S said...

This was really interesting! What I'm wondering is whether this particular Owl Bar is the one so popular, and so widely photographed--with sailors in the 1940s? I just found pix of my Dad at The Owl Bar--but don't know if it's this Owl Bar? Did they cater to a sailor clientele?

jmhouse said...

O/S, it's unlikely that the Owl Bar in San Antonio, NM, catered to many sailors in the 1940's as it's fairly land-locked. Also, it didn't open until 1945, so if the pictures of your dad are older than that it would have to be another Owl Bar, perhaps the one in Baltimore, Maryland, which I think has 1940's-era photos of sailors associated with it.

Having said that, the Owl Bar is very close to White Sands Missile Range where, in the mid-1940's, the atomic bomb was being developed. Thus, there were many military personnel in the area in the 1940's, and they would've included all branches. For example, William Sterling Parsons was an ordnance expert involved in the Manhattan Project and he was a naval officer. Here's A PHOTO of his portrait at the Trinity Site, not far from the Owl Bar.

Hope this helps a little. Or maybe it just muddied the waters further!

Thanks for stopping by City of Dust! JM

pelayo said...

Today I accomplished two things on my bucket list. One:go see ground zero at the trinity test site. Two: Have a green chili burger at the owl tavern which I must say was delicious although the bun could've been a little bigger. The place was packed with other tourists visiting the test site which is only open twice a year. The first Saturdays in October and April. I tried to see what was left of the Hilton house but I guess there isn't anything left of it. I did stop in Socorro and circuited the plaza there- way cool. I stopped in a curio shop and the owner directed me to the Hilton house in Socorro that still stands. I don't know if the Hilton hotels still give out copies of "Be My Guest" which is Conrad Hilton's story written by himself. I found it to be very inspiring. Especially about all the times he overcame adversities. I recommend anyone read it.

jmhouse said...

Thanks for your comment, pelayo! Yes, indeed, little trace of the Hilton's remains in San Antonio. There are only the foundations shown in the photos above and some of Conrad's graffiti on the wall of what used to be the schoolhouse. The school was re-purposed as a barn long ago and is not accessible to the public. However, I can report that the graffiti says, "C. Hilton 1903."

As for the Trinity Site, it is something to see, isn't it? There isn't much left there, either, really, but it is still quite evocative.

Congratulations on checking two things off your bucket list, and thanks for stopping by City of Dust! JM