Sunday, June 26, 2011

We'll Shoot the Lights Out For You: The St. James Hotel, Cimarron, New Mexico

I’ve been trying to get back to the St. James Hotel in Cimarron, New Mexico for over five years now. In the fall of 2005 I was driving from Oklahoma to Taos via U.S. 64 and, on a whim, stopped for a few minutes at the old hotel. I immediately knew I wanted to spend some time there, but the road was calling and soon I had to get going. I bid the place adieu and vowed to return. Back then, I didn’t know that the St. James is considered one of the most haunted hotels in the United States. All I knew was what I’d just read in an article tacked to a wall; that the hotel was built in 1872, that 26 people had been killed in the saloon alone, and that everyone from Jesse James and Buffalo Bill to Clay Allison and Zane Grey had spent the night. As it turns out, not all of those claims are necessarily true, but there’s still more than enough verifiable history in the St. James Hotel to satisfy me.

When I posted about the ghost town of ELIZABETHTOWN, New Mexico awhile back, I mentioned Henri Lambert. Lambert, a Frenchman, had moved from Washington, D.C. to Elizabethtown in 1864 to try his luck at mining. Eventually he gave up on gold, however, and returned to his previous occupation as a chef. It’s been said that Lambert was Abraham Lincoln’s personal chef, but there is no hard evidence of this. On the other hand, it probably is true that, while living in Elizabethtown, Lambert was presented with a severed head. More on that grim tale can be found HERE. Lambert left Elizabethtown in 1871, moved to Cimarron (Spanish for “feral,” but also meaning “wild” or “fugitive”) and, in 1872, opened a saloon, which became known as Lambert’s Place. Not surprisingly, the saloon did a brisk business and, by 1880, Lambert had made additions, including hotel rooms and a restaurant. Lambert’s Place became the Lambert Inn and, eventually, was re-named the St. James Hotel.

Cimarron was indeed a wild place and the names of most of the people killed in or around the hotel between 1872 and 1884 are known, as are the names of the killers. Henri Lambert himself shot two people and, in the mid 1870’s, it was apparently not uncommon to be asked, "Who was killed at Lambert's last night?" But it is worth considering that the notorious Texas gunfighter, rancher, and outlaw Clay Allison is credited with killing 11 people at the St. James Hotel, which means that, without Mr. Allison, the place would’ve been much less violent. Still, numerous bullet holes remain in the saloon’s tin ceiling to bear witness to the rough times.

If you believe what’s been written, you’d think that many (if not most!) of the major figures of the Wild West stayed at the St. James Hotel. Here it’s often difficult to separate fact from fiction, but I’ll try my best and, if anyone can further verify or deny these claims, please do so. First, it’s said that Jesse James stayed at the hotel, but that’s probably not true as there is no evidence that Jesse James ever came through northern New Mexico. Annie Oakley, also reported to have spent time at the St. James, never visited New Mexico at all. The story is that Annie Oakley was passing through with Buffalo Bill Cody while they worked on putting together a Wild West Show, and thus there’s reason to suspect that Buffalo Bill never stayed at the hotel either. On the other hand, Buffalo Bill was said to be a personal friend of the Lambert’s, so the jury might still be out on that one. Legend has it that the Earp brothers and their wives spent three nights at the St James on their way to Tombstone and, you know, that just might be true. Clay Allison most certainly stayed many times, leaving the bodies behind to prove it. Bob Ford, the guy who shot Jesse James? Maybe. Ford is credited with shooting a man named Bob Curren in the St. James in 1882, the same year he shot Jesse. But I wouldn’t doubt that he actually came through later, on his move to Las Vegas, NM in 1884. In the early 20th century, Zane Grey definitely spent time at the hotel, writing some of Fighting Caravans in room 22. Other figures like Black Jack Ketchum and Doc Holliday? They were at times nearby, but your guess is as good as mine as to whether they really visited the St. James.

It’s useful to know who really stayed at the St. James Hotel so that, in the event of a haunting, you can better guess whose ghost you’re dealing with. Jesse James? Not likely. Henri’s wife, Mary Lambert? Quite possibly, especially if you’re in room 17 and there’s an overpowering odor of rose perfume. Perhaps the most interesting spectral figure at the St. James is Thomas James (T.J.) Wright. T.J. Wright was reportedly killed upstairs in the card room, following an evening of gambling. One story has Lambert himself shooting Wright in the back as Wright walked away after Lambert had gambled (and lost) his entire hotel to T.J. I doubt that’s accurate, but, whatever the case, Wright was dead at the age of 22. Now, Wright’s violent spirit is said to occupy his old room, number 18. So many guests have reported being tormented by Wright’s ghost, some being physically hurt, that room 18 is now padlocked and guests are not allowed in. Our bartender said that he sometimes goes up to the room and has a glass of whiskey, leaving one behind for Mr. Wright.

We spent the night in the Mary Lambert room, but I didn’t notice any essence of rose. Right across the hall was room 18, and my girlfriend reported hearing creaking floorboards from that direction that kept her up some of the night. She was pretty spooked, actually. Myself? I slept very well, thank you. In the morning I peaked through a crack in the door to get a look at room 18. I could see some torn wallpaper with holes showing through the plaster and plenty of dust. Whatever is going on, that room hasn’t been used for awhile.

Finally, to wrap up this epic post, the St. James hit hard times when the railroad cut off traffic along the adjacent Santa Fe Trail and the mines began to close. The hotel was bought and sold many times and, by 1985, had fallen into disrepair. But, in 1985, the St. James Hotel was fully restored and now, with a modern wing (those hoping to be haunted shouldn’t stay in this section) and a large restaurant and bar, the place is once again the liveliest thing going in Cimarron. I’ll get back again sometime, I swear.

Wanna stay at the St. James Hotel? Go HERE. But note that they don’t take reservations on-line; you gotta call ‘em. Information from this post came from wherever I could dig it up; pamphlets, fliers, wikipedia, etc. But NOT Philip Varney’s ghost town guide. We’ll get back to that next time.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Ghosts from the Mother Road: Santo Domingo Trading Post

Just north of Albuquerque, a short distance west of I-25 and right off Historic Route 66, sits the old Santo Domingo Indian Trading Post, apparently waiting for its fate to finally be decided. Built by the Seligman Family in 1922, the trading post supplied authentic jewelry made by artists from the Santo Domingo (now Kewa) Pueblo to travelers on Route 66, as well as providing gas and Nehi orange soda. Being on the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe line meant that the Southwest Chief, running between Chicago and Los Angeles, also stopped there, as did John F. Kennedy on at least one occasion.

Considered to be of historic significance (“architecture/engineering, event”) and built in a vaguely Mission/Spanish Revival style, the trading post is #97001592 on the National Register of Historical Places. It was added to the New Mexico Register of Cultural Properties in 1997 and, when added to the national register on January 9, 1998, the current function of the building was listed as “commerce/trade.” Now, 13 years later (and 10 years after the building was gutted by fire), its current function is less obvious. However, in July 2010, the trading post received a one million dollar federal restoration grant from the Economic Development Administration to re-open and offer arts and crafts made by residents of the Kewa Pueblo. But clearly that money hasn’t been spent yet. Given the current economic climate, who knows what will happen to the trading post.

I have to say that I really love this building. For some time before I managed a visit I eyed it longingly from the Rail Runner, which stops just across the street, on trips to and from Santa Fe. A black and white photo of the fa├žade hangs in my office, one of the very few photos which I’ve taken that are actually displayed in my home. I hope it gets rehabilitated someday soon and isn’t left to just collapse into the dust, as seems highly likely. Alas.

Next time...more ghosts.

Information for this post came from Only In New Mexico, a blog by former Mayor of Albuquerque Jim Baca, and Route 66 News. The National Register of Historical Places listing can be found HERE. Thanks to Killbox for tracking down the historical register listing.

All photos taken around or inside the trading post and adjacent buildings.

2013 UPDATE: Below is the best picture of the Santo Domingo Trading Post in its heyday that I've ever seen. Apparently it was once known as "Silver Dollar's Indian Trading Post." A sign above the gas pumps, on the left side of the pole, says, "J.F.K. was here. 12/7/62." It's great to put a date to the visit and, judging by the old-style pumps and people's clothes, the shot might well be pre-1970. Thanks to Matt for sending this one in.

JULY 2014 UPDATE: Recently a comment was left by someone with the initials M.W., who said they had grown up in the adobe house to the right of the Santo Domingo Trading Post. They were six at that time and are 51 now. So, I looked through my photos for a shot of that house and, while I don't have a real good one, the house can just barely be seen at the very far right of the picture below. I believe it was torn down when restoration work began on the trading post a couple years ago.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

City of Dust Interview at The American Classic

An interview I did a few days ago with Alex over at The American Classic can now be found HERE. I'm flattered that Alex wanted to do an interview and honored that he gave me so much space. Take a trip through his very cool site(s) and learn how to look better and feel good about it.

Photo taken at an abandoned gas station in Springer, New Mexico.