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New owner is returning old St. James hotel along old Santa Fe Trail to its Wild West luster

By Raam Wong
Journal Northern Bureau
          CIMARRON — With bullet holes in the saloon and ghost sightings down the hall, the 19th-century St. James Hotel still evokes the rough-and-tumble Wild West, when, it's said, that more than two dozen guests checked in but never checked out.
        T. James Wright was one of those who, in 1881, bit the dust. After cleaning out other guests in a poker game, it's said Wright retired to bed, where another player shot him to death and stole his winnings.
        More than a century later, the historic hotel here in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains has recently come under new ownership. And the hotel's new management is promising guests a decidedly better stay than that had by the late Mr. Wright.
        "We want to honor the history of the St. James Hotel," said Steve Boyce, assistant manager of the nearby Express UU Bar Ranch. The ranch's owner, wealthy Oklahoma businessman Bob Funk, bought the hotel in December.
        He's the latest in a string of men and women to buy the St. James since it was opened in the 1870s by a former cook for Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln.
        Funk hopes to return the St. James to its frontier past, when running water, electricity and French furnishings made it perhaps the most modern hotel west of the Mississippi.
        Workers recently began a $1 million renovation of the lobby and an expansion of the restaurant and saloon. The coming years will also see work on the rooms themselves, where the likes of Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill Cody once slept.
        But the St. James might best be known for the gunslingers and gamblers, desperados and deadbeats, who sipped their whiskey and fired their guns in the saloon. Some 26 unfortunate souls had to be carried out feet first.
        Closed off
        The story goes that Wright's room has been kept locked since the violent night the gambler was left to bleed to death. When Boyce toured the St. James last year, he had to cajole a frightened hotel manager to unbolt the haunted room.
        The ashen-faced employee watched from a safe distance as Boyce stepped inside, where he discovered handwritten notes that had been slipped under the door.
        "Hello Mr. Wright," read one. "We're so sorry about your misfortunes. We feel you have a right to be angry."
        While Room 14 has purportedly been sealed for decades, it's also set up with shot glasses and a bottle of Jack Daniels on the nightstand — props seemingly placed there to titillate modern ghost hunters.
        Previous reports have also placed Wright's room at No. 18, not 14 where it is today. (Coincidence or not, "Wright's room" also happens to be one of the smallest in the hotel.)
        The St. James, then, seems to be a place where fact and fiction intermingle as easily as the spirits said to play cards in the poker room. But the new management isn't taking any chances. "I think we'll leave Room 14 locked," Boyce said.
        Wild West
        Located along the old Santa Fe Trail and in the heart of northern New Mexico's cattle country, Cimarron in the mid- to late 1800s was a center for business and debauchery. The local monarch of sorts was Lucien B. Maxwell, a former trader and trapper who acquired through marriage the region's 1.7 million-acre Spanish land grant. The Maxwell home was the first "civilized" stop along the trail in New Mexico Territory and the site of many lavish parties, according to state Historic Preservation Division records.
        Down the street, Swink's Saloon became the most notorious gambling hall in the region soon after its 1854 opening.
        The St. James was founded by Henri Lambert, a French immigrant who had cooked for Grant and Lincoln before moving west to chase his fortune prospecting for gold. But there was more money to be made pouring drinks, so Lambert opened a saloon in 1872. A few years later, Lambert added the two-story adobe hotel that stands today.
        Closed for the renovation, the hotel's 24 rooms are vacant and haunting in these days of winter.
        The floorboards moan beneath visitors' feet as they tiptoe down the dim, frigid hallways. In one corner, a menacing photo of Billy the Kid hangs on the wall, while a stuffed mountain lion looms over the red-carpeted staircase. More than a century of settling has left the floors uneven in places and door frames askew. Walk softly, lest you stir the spirits that seem to linger within the brocade wallpaper.
        The ghost of Mary Lambert, the hotelier's wife, is said to close doors and turn out lights inside her room, No. 17. It's said to smell of rose-scented perfume whenever Mary is near.
        Famous guests
        The rooms are named for the famous — and infamous — guests who once slept here. Room 11 is named for Wyatt Earp, who stayed a few nights as he traveled from Dodge City to Tombstone.
        Doc Holliday came in 1879 to recruit men for a railroad fight over the Raton Pass. After his stay, Holliday moved on to Las Vegas, N.M., where, according to hotel lore, he killed a man.
        The frequent violence at the hotel itself prompted Lambert to install two layers of wood in the ceiling above the saloon to protect upstairs guests from stray bullets.
        Those bullets left at least 27 holes in the pressed-tin ceiling that are still visible.
        Plans call for a new, contemporary kitchen and an expansion of the restaurant and saloon with enough space to seat 300 in the summer. The restaurant will include a courtyard outfitted with fireplaces and a large waterfall.
        Boyce hopes the steak- and chophouse will draw Angel Fire and Red River visitors, as well as locals and summer employees at the nearby Philmont Scout Ranch. The lobby is also getting a makeover, and the period furniture is being tightened up and reupholstered.
        A recent addition to the hotel's backside has been demolished, and, last week, crews were there pouring concrete for a new one. Boyce hopes to mostly maintain the rustic look of the place.
        Construction is slated to be done in June, and room reservations are being accepted for July.
        Boyce also hopes to spruce up the rooms in coming years. Period furnishings like the rickety roulette table and crystal chandeliers will stay, but Boyce says bathroom fixtures, ratty carpets and other items have to go.
        Designated a historic place in 1968, the St. James was one of the first entries on New Mexico's list of cultural properties. The hotel is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. However, Funk won't have to get any sort of outside approval for his project, because the remodel is not using public funds, according to state Historic Preservation Division spokesman Tom Drake.
        Boyce thinks Mary, Mr. Wright and the other spirits that roam the St. James will like his plans for their hotel.
        "If there are any ghosts," he said, "I think they'd be tickled to death."

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