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.
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, a college student, who has worked summers at the hotel, reported that 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.
© Kathy Weiser-Alexander/Legends of America, updated September 2022.
“If a house was seated on some melancholy place, or built in some old romantic manner, or if any particular accident had happened in it, such as murder, sudden death or the like… That house had a mark set on it and was afterward esteemed the habitation of a ghost.”
— Bournes’ Antiquities
Readers’ Stories of the St. James Hotel”
Though I had seen the St. James Hotel featured several times on the popular television show “Unsolved Mysteries” and was very impressed with the stories, I never thought I would have the opportunity to visit there, let alone spend the night.
However, in the late 1980s, I took a new job installing payphones all over the State of New Mexico. When I was given the task of installing several phones in the Cimarron area, I decided to spend the night at the St. James Hotel.
That first night, I stayed in the Zane Gray room, and as I was getting ready to take a shower, I noticed a small mirror hanging on the wall that was rocking back and forth. Click, click. Click, click. Though I tried to ignore it, the clicking sound persisted until I finally walked over to the mirror and felt the wall to see if it was vibrating. It wasn’t.
I then looked into the mirror to see if I might see the reflection of something other than myself. Nope, nothing but me. Then I touched the mirror on the lower corner, holding it to the wall, before slowly taking my finger off. The rocking stopped. Before going to the shower, I looked at the mirror and said out loud, with a smile on my face, “What’s the matter, are you tired of playing?” The mirror went, click, click, and stopped.
Over the next few months, I had several more opportunities to stay at the St. James. In fact, I would plan my trips so that the Cimarron area would be my last stop and always stayed in the Zane Gray room. However, nothing more happened until what turned out to be my last stay there.
Just down the hall from my room is another small circular room with a poker table. I always thought it would be great fun to play poker there but never had the chance.
On that night, I had gone to bed early, having to be in Colorado the next morning and needing to get an early start in order to get back to my home in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, the next night.
However, I was having trouble getting to sleep, and as I tossed and turned, I began to hear the sounds of people talking down the hall. It was odd, as I was the only guest in the hotel that night. As I listened to the voices, it sounded as if they were calling poker games, such as “Jokers Wild” or “Jacks or Better to Open.”
Curious, I got up, pulled on my pants, opened the door, and looked down the hall. There, in the corridor, was a lady in a bright red, ruffled, 19th-century period dress. Looking a little annoyed, she was holding a round serving tray. I went back into my room, thinking this might be my chance to play a little cards in the circular room I had always wondered about. I put on a shirt, went back out, and walked down the hallway to the poker room. When I poked my head in, three men, all in period dress, were playing poker. One of them asked me if I wanted to get in, to which I responded: “What are the stakes?”
“$20.00 ante,” he replied.
Unfortunately, all I had with me was a $20 bill and a company credit card. Having to decline, I went back to my room and went to sleep. (For those of you who do not play poker, the “ante” is the price to get into the game. I would have needed more in order to bet.)
When I got up about 5:30 a.m., I got my stuff together and as I walked down the hall I looked in the poker room. It was spotless — no empty bottles, no cigarette butts, not even a dirty glass. I then went downstairs to the front desk to check out and asked the desk clerk, “Were there any big winners last night?”
“What do you mean?” she replied.
“Those guys playing poker upstairs last night,” I said.
Shaking her head, she said, “Mr. Jenkins, I’ve been here all night, and you were the only one upstairs.”
I just stood there speechless. Feeling as though I had just been hit over the head, I then simply walked away, left the hotel, and have never had the opportunity to return.
I was absolutely sure that those people that I had seen the night before had been part of some kind of show or had been to a square dance or something because of their dress. They seemed so much like “flesh and blood” people. But the desk clerk had said I was there alone and no one is allowed upstairs at night unless they are guests of the hotel.
I don’t know what I experienced, but I wish I had stayed a while longer and talked to “them” more. Like so many other experiences that we have on a daily basis, I berated myself later for not having asked the men their names. What would have happened if I had asked them to leave? Would they have simply disappeared? Of course, I wouldn’t have asked them to leave — I truly thought they were “real” when I saw them.
As I write this, the hair on my arms is standing up. It’s a funny thing; I remember so much of that encounter as if it happened just yesterday. On the other hand, there are so many details that have totally escaped me. I compare my experience to a chance meeting of someone that you respect and look up to and not recognize them — only to find out later who they were. There are so many things I wish I would have said and done. If only I had …………
I don’t do drugs, and I don’t drink. Nothing quite like this has happened to me before — except when I was seven, but that’s another story. ~SMILE~
Submitted by Tom Jenkins, October 2005. No longer installing payphones, Tom now pursues his love of wood carving full time. An award-winning sculptor, his custom art has been featured in newspapers, wood carving catalogs, and magazines across the nation. Today, Tom lives in Casa Grande, Arizona. See Tom’s fantastic art at http://www.woodsculptureart.com
Ghost Hunters at the St. James
As ghost hunters, we were excited to stay in the second most haunted room of the St. James Hotel. As told on the Unsolved Mysteries TV series, the most haunted room has been sealed for the protection of hotel employees and guests. The ghostly inhabitant still makes a claim to owning the hotel as he won it in an Old West poker game on the very same night he was murdered in room 18. This hotel is full of Old West history, having guests such as Jesse James and Doc Holliday. We walked about the hotel using our EMF meters and found some strange readings. We also gathered some strange sounds from room 18 (the sealed room), which we are still analyzing.
As I was falling asleep, I felt a tender touch on my back and then noticed that my wife was not lying near enough to have touched me. When I inquired if she had just touched me…she had not! Immediately after, she was startled by invisible fingers gliding over her hand.
Finally, we slept, until 3:00 a.m. when we were awakened by a strange scream coming from inside our room, the Mary Lambert room. I began taking photographs, one of which contained a vortex. Vortexes are funnels of energy that are associated with ghostly activity.
The strangest phenomenon was a picture I had taken of the second-story window. There is a face in the window…not a reflection, not someone looking in. A ghostly face staring back as I was walking past the forbidden room 18.
Even if you are not a ghost hunter, the history, the wonderful staff, and the great food make St. James Hotel a wonderful vacation spot.
Submitted by Rick Smithson, May 2005 – Rick is a certified ghost hunter and member of the International Ghost Hunters Society.
St James Hotel
617 S Collison Ave
Cimarron, New Mexico 87714
Ghost Stories From The Old West
Haunted Hotels and Inns across America