Haunted St. James Hotel in Cimarron, New Mexico
By Kathy Weiser-Alexander/Legends of America, Contributing Writer
The St James Hotel in Cimarron, New Mexico, was built in 1872 by Henri Lambert (later changed to Henry) and was initially called Lambert’s Inn. Its saloon, restaurant, and 43 rooms witnessed at least 26 murders during Cimarron’s wilder days. Clay Allison, Black Jack Ketchum, Jesse James, and Buffalo Bill Cody have all left their mark on the St. James, as attested by the numerous bullet holes in the main dining room ceiling.
Before Henry made his way to New Mexico, he was the personal chef to President Abraham Lincoln, upon the recommendation of Ulysses S. Grant. He continued to hold the position until the president was assassinated in 1865. Before long, Henry made his way west in search of gold. Finally settling in Elizabethtown, New Mexico, he opened a saloon and restaurant instead of finding gold.
At this time, Elizabethtown, Cimarron, and much of the surrounding area were owned by Lucien B. Maxwell. The Maxwell Land Grant was the largest land grant ever made in the United States. When Maxwell sold the grant in 1870, the new Land Grant Company men discovered that the French chef, Henry Lambert, was working in Elizabethtown and enticed him to come to Cimarron.
The Lambert Inn, as it was called at the time, started business in 1872. Built during a time when law and order were non-existent, the saloon quickly gained a reputation as a place of violence, where it is said that 26 men were shot and killed within its adobe walls. The first question usually asked around Cimarron in the morning was: “Who was killed at Lambert’s last night?” Another favorite expression following a killing was: “It appears Lambert had himself another man for breakfast.”
The saloon was wildly popular with cowboys, traders, miners, and the many travelers of the Santa Fe Trail. The saloon did so well that Henry added guest rooms in 1880, and the hotel was soon considered one of the most elegant hotels west of the Mississippi River.
Many well-known people stayed there over the years. Wyatt Earp, his brother Morgan, and their wives spent three nights at the St. James on their way to Tombstone, Arizona. Jesse James stayed there several times, always in room 14, signing the registry with his alias, R.H. Howard. Jesse James’ nemesis and would-be killer, Bob Ford, also stayed at the St. James.
Buffalo Bill Cody, a goat ranch manager for Lucien Maxwell for a short time, met Annie Oakley at the hotel and began to plan and rehearse their Wild West Show. When Henry’s son Fred was born, Buffalo Bill nicknamed him “Cyclone Dick” because he was born during a blustery snowstorm, and he was soon asked to be Fred’s godfather.
As Fred Lambert grew older, Buffalo Bill would be one of the first to give him instruction in the use of guns. Fred Lambert would spend his entire life upholding the law as a Cimarron Sheriff, a member of the tribal police, and a territorial marshal. When Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley left Cimarron to take their show on the road, they took an entire village of Indians from the Cimarron area with them.
Other notables who have stayed at the historic inn include Bat Masterson, train robber Black Jack Tom Ketchum, General Sheridan, Doc Holliday, Billy the Kid, Clay Allison, Pat Garret, artist Fredrick Remington, Governor Lew Wallace, and writer Zane Grey. The Hotel was later renamed the St. James and continues to cater to travelers today.
When the railroads came through, the Santa Fe Trail died, and soon after, the gold in the area began to play out. Cimarron’s population dwindled, and the elegant St. James Hotel fell into disrepair.
When Henry Lambert’s sons, Fred and Gene, replaced the roof of the Lambert Inn in 1901, they found more than 400 bullet holes in the ceiling above the bar. A double layer of heavy wood prevented anyone from sleeping upstairs from being killed. Today, the ceiling of the dining room still holds 22 bullet holes.
Henri Lambert died in 1913. His wife, Mary E. Lambert, died in 1926. Through the years, the old hotel was, at many times, uninhabited and passed from owner to owner. However, in 1985 the St. James Hotel was restored to its former luxury. And just within the last decade or so, it has been updated again.
The St. James Hotel is said to remain host to several restless spirits. Both the owners and the hotel guests will tell you that many unexplained events haunt it. Several psychics have visited the hotel and specifically identified three spirits and many others who pass through to relive their experiences.
The hotel’s second floor is the most active, with stories of cold spots and the smell of cigar smoke lingering in the halls (smoking is not allowed in the hotel.) A prior manager said that “you never see them, but you do feel and hear them.” Another report from a former owner states that she walked into the dining room and saw a pleasant-looking cowboy standing behind her in the mirror on the front of the bar. The spiritual activity of the hotel has been featured on the popular television shows Unsolved Mysteries and A Current Affair.
Room 18 at the hotel is kept locked because it houses the ghost of an ill-tempered Thomas James Wright, who was killed at his door just after winning the rights to the hotel in a poker game. Having been shot from behind, Wright continued into the room and slowly bled to death.
Though today, this dining room serves elegant meals, it was this room that once served as Lambert’s Saloon, and its tin ceiling is still pocked with bullet holes, by Kathy Weiser-Alexander, 2006.
Wright’s angry, malevolent ghost continues to haunt the room, and he does not like company. One former owner said she was pushed down while in the room and, on another occasion, saw a ball of angry orange light floating in the upper corner. The room holds only a bed frame without a mattress, a coat rack, a rocking chair, and a bureau that has been made a shrine to the Old West. Sitting atop the bureau is a Jack Daniels bottle, a basin and pitcher, a hand of cards, an Ace Copenhagen tin, and several shot glasses. On the wall is a bad painting of a half-naked woman.
The staff considers this room to be the most haunted, and people are rarely allowed to enter the room, much less sleep in it. Rumors abound that when the room was rented, several mysterious deaths occurred there.
Room 17 is the epicenter of sightings of Henry’s second wife, Mary Elizabeth, who is said to remain at the hotel as a protector. Mary gave birth to her children in the hotel and died there herself in December 1926. Allegedly, Mary’s rose-scented perfume can often be smelled in her old room. Sometimes, an insistent tapping is heard when the window is open and will not stop until the window is closed. On other occasions, a milky transparent woman can be seen in the hallways.
Another “dwarf-like” old man has also been seen at the hotel. Nicknamed the “Little Imp” by the hotel staff, the spirit is very mischievous, constantly playing tricks and laughing at the staff. On one occasion, he was said to have stuck a knife into the floor between two owners of the old inn. However, he is often blamed for objects that mysteriously disappear, only to be found later in locations where they don’t belong.
Other unknown entities are also said to roam the hotel, creating a host of paranormal activities. Staff report that items constantly fall off walls and shelves, and electrical equipment at the front desk behaves unpredictably. Others have reported cold spots throughout the historic inn, lights that seemingly turn on by themselves, feelings of being watched by unseen eyes, and cameras that cease to work inside the hotel strangely returning to normal after leaving the St. James.
Kody Mutz, when he was a college student, (now the proprietor of the Enchanted Circle Brewery just outside of Eagle Nest,) who had worked summers at the hotel, reported that in back in 2002, as he was working at the front desk, he heard a high-pitched shriek coming from the far corner of the lobby.
Looking up abruptly from his work, he was dumbfounded to see absolutely no one on that side of the room. Quickly looking around, his eyes rested on three other quests mingling at the other side of the lobby; having not heard the loud scream, they were completely unphased.
The hotel features 13 historic rooms, named for the famous and infamous people who once stayed there. An annex was also added to the hotel that houses an additional ten rooms. The hotel retains its historic ambiance with antique chandeliers, velvet drapes, thick carpets covering its old wooden floors, brocade wallpaper, and many of the hotel’s original furnishings.
There are no phones, radios, or televisions in the 14 rooms of the main hotel; however, the ten-room annex has all the amenities of a modern hotel. The old saloon, which is now used as the hotel’s dining room, still holds the original antique bar, as well as twenty-two bullet holes in the pressed-tin ceiling.
In the hotel’s hallway is a plaque that commemorates Clay Allison and the roster of 19 men he was said to have killed, as well as photographs of the many famous guests that have stayed at the historic inn. Also in the hallway is the original headstone of Parson Franklin J. Tolby, the beloved minister of Cimarron, who was killed during the Colfax County War.
Checking into this historic place will make you feel as if you have stepped back in time, as mounted deer and buffalo stare down at you from the lobby walls, you view the old hotel ledgers signed by its many famous guests, and imagine the sound of tinny music coming from the antique piano in the corner. Perhaps you too will be lucky or unlucky enough, depending upon your point of view, to run into one of the hotel’s many unearthly guests.