James Hotel echoes with legends, history

Posted: Sunday, October 10, 2004

CIMARRON, N.M. -- The door to room No. 18 at the St. James Hotel is padlocked and never rented out.

T.J. Wright, a 19th century gunslinger, crawled inside the room and died after winning the hotel in a poker game and getting shot in the back as he left the table.

But the tale of Wright's demise is just one of many colorful stories in the 132-year-old hotel's past.

Some guests swear they smell the rose-scented perfume favored by Merci Lambert, wife of hotel founder Henri Lambert. Others claim an impish ghost occasionally turns up in the bar.

The hotel, which sits off the Santa Fe Trail in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, has 26 bullet holes in the tin ceiling of the dining room, original antiques, and the guest book signature of Jesse James' pseudonym R.H. Howard on display.

The hotel was founded -- originally as a saloon -- by Lambert, who had been President Lincoln's personal chef during the Civil War. By 1880, guests were staying over.

"You walk in the door and you've stepped back in time," Smith said.

Karen Hudson of Albuquerque, about three hours south, said she and her husband decided to visit after seeing the hotel featured on the Lifetime cable show "Unsolved Mysteries," and they have returned several times.

"It's charming, it's enchant-ing, captivating and haunted," she said.

On the first visit, Hudson said she and her husband stayed in the Zane Grey room. All the rooms are named after former guests, including Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill Cody and Wyatt Earp.

Hudson said that as she explored the hotel, "I could not shake the feeling of being watched or followed." And standing in front of room No. 18, "I could feel something like getting the heebie-jeebies on the back of my neck. My husband said it felt like the hair on the back of his neck was standing on end."

When they returned to their room after dinner, the door was wide open, even though her husband recalled locking it. "Something or someone went in that room or at least let us know they were in there," she said. But her husband thinks a hotel employee unlocked it so the couple would believe a ghost had entered.

"I personally cannot attest to any extraordinary experiences, but I have had employees and other very rational and calm thinkers who have," said hotel proprietor Roger Smith. "We've also had enough people come through here who tend to believe and study and chase such things who are convinced there are presences here."

There are no air conditioners, phones or televisions in the rooms, and some guests must share a communal bathroom.

Several of the 14 rooms have seen better days, with plaster and wallpaper peeling off, but others have been restored to their original grandeur.

Smith, one of several investors who purchased the hotel in March 2002, said they're working "one room at a time."

For visitors who like the comforts of a typical motel, a two-story annex with 10 rooms was built across the courtyard.

The St. James is also a gathering place for local residents, who join tourists for upscale meals in the dining room that originally was the saloon.

On some weekends -- including Halloween this year -- the hotel lets guests play the roles of James, Earp, Oakley or others in a "Murder on the Santa Fe Trail" drama that begins with hors d'oeuvres Friday and lasts through Sunday brunch.

The hotel with its unusual past isn't the only reason to visit this small town in northeastern New Mexico.

With pristine streams and pine-covered mountains, the area is a favorite of adventurous anglers, hunters, photographers, hikers, motorcyclists and bikers.

Boy Scouts by the thousands spend their summers a couple of miles down the road camped in tents near Villa Philmonte, the former summer home of Phillips 66 oil magnate Waite Phillips. It was donated to the Scouts -- along with 127,000 acres that are now home to a training camp and working ranch.

But don't expect to go to any movies or chain restaurants in Cimarron, where a shopping expedition will take only a few hours at the shops off the main drag. There's not even a stoplight along U.S. 64 through town, but there is a well-known speed trap that starts on the outskirts.

"It's a unique corner of the world," Smith said. "It's a quiet little burg with a world of history, and recent history. It's not that long ago there were gunfights in the street."

If You Go...

n ST. JAMES HOTEL: Room rates range from $80 to $120. "Murder on the Santa Fe Trail" weekends are scheduled for Oct. 29 to 31; Nov. 19 to 21; Jan. 14 to 16; and Feb. 18 to 20. Sunday evening dinners with lectures and entertainment ($30 a person) are scheduled for Oct. 17 ("Tales & Music of the Old West"); Nov. 21 ("River Otter Restoration in New Mexico"); and Dec. 19 ("Santa Fe Carolers: Music of the Season"). Visit www.stjamescimarron.com or call (866) 472-5019 or (505) 376 2664 for reservations and details.



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