In Praise of Old Hotels – the Santa Fe Trail

In April, 2019, I started off on a road trip to retrace the route of the Santa Fe Trail heading east from New Mexico to Missouri. I have covered the trail in parts before but there were several gaps that I filled in on this trip. The full narrative of the trip is available HERE. As I usually do, I found several historic hotels to add to this series (search; In Praise of Old Hotels).

Walsenburg, Colorado – La Plaza Inn

My first night’s stop was at Walsenburg, Colorado, located near the Spanish Peaks, twin mountains that sit as outliers from the main front range of the Rockies. These peaks, reaching 13,600 feet, were probably the first actual mountain landmarks the traders on the Santa Fe Trail encountered from out on the plains. From here they turned south to climb over Raton Pass (7,800 ft.). Walsenburg was also the scene of some of the worst fighting during the 1914 coalfields war between striking miners and the Colorado National Guard and mine company thugs. The war started with the Ludlow, Massacre, a few miles to the south and then spread over a ten day period to engulf the front range between Trinidad and Walsenburg.  There were almost thirty people killed in Walsenburg before President Woodrow Wilson sent in regular Army troops to disarm the two opposing groups.

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I stayed at the La Plaza Inn, a local historic hotel established in 1907 that stood witness to the bloodshed of the coalfields war. It’s a small place today with eleven guest rooms and a nice restaurant with two dining areas. The rooms are furnished with eclectic antiques and decorated much in the style of the early 1900s.

There were probably more rooms at one time but modern travelers need private bathrooms and a bit more space than those of 1907. There is a nice bright lobby and a second-floor foyer at the top of the staircase that serves as a sitting room or social game area. The owners consider the place to be a Bed and Breakfast but it straddles the line and falls more on the Inn classification in my estimation. It is a pleasant place to stay and they take care of you.

My room was nicely furnished with a vintage iron bed, antiques and a nice adjoining bathroom. It had a definite cowboy feel to it – not fancy but comfortable and inviting. It had a television and a few modern amenities. There often is a shortage of electrical outlets in historic hotels but I had enough to recharge all of my gadgets. The hotel is 112 years old and it has been restored and maintained with care but, as with many of the old historic places, the floors are a bit creaky and you can see some of the age here and there. That’s a good thing as far as I’m concerned. It has some history and character. It gives the impression of being a working man’s hotel from the 1900s — not fancy but comfortable and welcoming. There were some hunters staying there when I checked in. Don’t expect lavish luxury but you will find casual comfort.

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One word of caution – Walsenburg is a railroad town and there are freight trains that go through town all night long. You can hear them sounding their horns a couple miles out and the noise intensifies and continues all through town and for a bit further as they leave town. The hotel supplies ear plugs to help suppress the sound while you sleep – use them. Otherwise, you might have a hard time getting much sleep. I guess the locals are used to it but if you haven’t experienced a railroad hotel, it will be a challenge to sleep without earplugs.

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The hotel has a fine restaurant and two dining areas. I picked the more casual store-front library room with shop windows open to the street. The specialty on the menu for Saturday night was Prime Rib – in two size portions.  I took advantage of the smaller portion with a salad and baked potato and a beer. This is Colorado and the beef is very good and possibly local. There is a microbrewery in town about a block away, but I decided to skip it for this trip. I’ll catch it some other time.

My room was comfortable for the night and I helped myself to the coffee set-up in the second-floor common area in the morning. The hotel provides a full breakfast with eggs, bacon, hash-browns, fresh fruit, a pancake, fruit juice, and coffee. I don’t think anyone goes away hungry from the La Plaza Inn. The staff and innkeeper were pleasant and helpful. There were a few other guests in the hotel and the restaurant seemed fairly busy in the evening. There is a small bar in the lobby. I enjoyed my stay here and would stay here again if I was looking for a place in Walsenburg.

Walsenburg has another claim to notoriety besides the coalfield war and the midnight trains. The outlaw Robert “Bob” Ford operated a saloon and gambling house in Walsenburg around 1890. This was eight years after he shot Jesse James (alias Thomas Howard) in the back in his home in St. Joseph, Missouri. The “dirty little coward that shot Mr. Howard” had to watch his own back after the deed was done. He died in 1892, murdered by a shotgun blast  from Edward Capehart O’Kelley in Creede, Colorado.

Leaving Walsenburg, I travelled most of the length of the state of Kansas through several towns that dot the route of the Santa Fe Trail. My destination for the night was Marion, just a bit off the usual trail route.

Marion, Kansas – The Historic Elgin Hotel
I got to Marion, Kansas, two hours late  because I stopped a few times along the way.  This part of Kansas is a bit interesting and scenic in its own way. Coronado almost made it this far across Kansas before turning back toward New Mexico. This area is on the edge of the Flint Hills, a slightly hilly and rolling terrain unlike most of Kansas. I knew nothing about Marion except that I had some distant relatives that settled in the area in the 1870s and the only geographic place-name that matches my family surname is a pioneer cemetery a few miles north of town. I planned to visit the place before I left town.

I was immediately impressed with Marion – it is a substantial place, the county seat of Marion County.  There seems to have been an oil and gas boom here some time ago and the place looks a bit well off. I was staying at another historic hotel – The Historic Elgin Hotel.

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I can’t say enough about this place so indulge me. These little towns were always competing with each other for attention. Marion was the county seat and wanted the business that should naturally flow into such an important place. The railroad arrived in 1879. The hotel dates to 1886 when local movers and shakers decided that what Marion needed was a good hotel. The Elgin Hotel would be an asset to any town or city, and I was a bit surprised to find it in a small town in eastern Kansas. It is a gem.

It is an imposingly large, three-story stone building  just off the main street in a quiet and walkable neighborhood. This place has been here for 133 years and is probably going to last another 133 years.

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I stayed in the Eisenhower Suite. Dwight Eisenhower lived not too far away in Abilene, but I have no idea if he actually stayed in this room or even at the Elgin Hotel.

If Ike stayed in the room, he likely had a good night’s rest. I slept like a baby and overslept by an hour or so. There were no train horns to speak of compared to Walsenburg.

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There are other themed rooms including the Amelia Earhart Suite – she was another local hero – and the Cowboy Room, complete with a large jetted bathtub.

This hotel has been very nicely restored and is as solid as a rock. No creaky floors and plenty of electrical outlets. It was very quiet. As I mentioned, I got there late (check-in is over at 5 PM)  and had to let myself in the front door with a pass code they sent me by e-mail.  There was no one at the front desk but a key and a note gave me instructions. I seemed to be the only one in the hotel. I unloaded my luggage from the car and locked up.

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This hotel has an elevator, which I was grateful for since my room was on the third floor, but the grand stair case has an impressive, if a bit overwhelming, chandelier. There are several common sitting areas. Everything is furnished in antiques (or reproductions in some cases) and it all works together.

The hotel went through a few changes over the years. At one point it was divided up as apartments. That brought the elevator. It was purchased and restored as a hotel by a previous owner who established their living quarters on the third floor. The current owners returned the third floor to the historic hotel suites a few years later.

The hotel has a wrap-around balcony/verandah on the second floor where guests can sit at tree level and take in the sun or the quiet small-town atmosphere.

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Breakfast is served in the second-floor dining room on weekends. During the week, guests are given a ten-dollar voucher for breakfast at the Queen Anne style café across the street. I can recommend the café for their biscuits and gravy – something I was craving as a comfort food from the Midwest.

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I could go on – but I won’t. Sometimes I stay in historic hotels and I’m impressed and sometimes I’m left with the thought that I never want to see a place again. I really can’t figure out a reason to come back to Marion but If I ever do, I would love to stay at the Elgin Hotel once again.

From Marion I continued on my way east, staying in Columbia, Missouri, for a few days and almost a week in St. Louis with family. I headed back west and made quick, roadside motel stops in Emporia and Liberal, Kansas. Nothing eventful or noteworthy.

Cimarron, New Mexico – The Saint James Hotel

I planned on spending my last night on the road in Cimarron, New Mexico, at the legendary St. James Hotel, established in 1872 by Henri Lambert, Abraham Lincoln’s personal chef.

Anybody who was anybody in the Wild West stayed at the St. James Hotel at one time or another. It was the vortex of what we perceive today as the wildest of the west, with all sorts of shootings, murders and outlaw stories swirling around the place. I think almost every famous outlaw stayed here as well as General Phil Sheridan, New Mexico’s Territorial Governor Lew Wallace (author of Ben Hur), lawman Pat Garrett, and the Earp brothers on their way to Tombstone. William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and Annie Oakley stayed here and worked out plans for her appearances in the Wild West Show. The hotel is well built and well maintained. The historic rooms are in the main building but a more modern annex has been added across a central courtyard. It is a big, sprawling place for the small town of Cimarron.

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I requested one of the historic rooms, not specifying anything in particular. I was put into old Room 14, Jesse James’ preferred room. Jesse signed the hotel register as Thomas Howard, his usual alias. The room is on the ground floor at the northeast corner of the building. He could have easily escaped through the window if the need arose to make a hasty get-away.  This reminds me of my stay in the Occidental Hotel in Buffalo, Wyoming, where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid always took the second floor corner room overlooking the Sheriff’s office. They could watch what was going on from that vantage point ans slink out of town if things got too hot. The register shows Mr. Howard stayed there several times. Looking at the room, I think Jesse had pretty good taste in accommodations.

I suspect that Jesse didn’t have indoor plumbing back in his day but I did and was glad for the convenience. There are a few rooms that share a couple common bathrooms  located in the hallway. The building is 147 years old and it has some of the evidence of age. The floors are only a slightly noisy…not too much…but you sometimes can hear people upstairs. Nobody was wearing spurs. These rooms have transoms over the door that swing open to allow for air circulation. Since the hall light is on all night there will be some light coming into the room if you leave it wide open. There are no televisions or telephones in the historic rooms. The hotel has WIFI.  I have wanted to stay at the St. James for a couple years and I was not disappointed. Staying in the historic rooms is not cheap, probably $50 more than at some better interstate motel, but worth the experience.

There are other impressive rooms down the hall from mine and Jesse’s room. I’m not sure who stayed in these but they had it pretty nice… even better than Jesse, I would say.

As I mentioned, the St. James was at the epicenter of a good deal of Wild West lawlessness. Bob Ford, the “dirty little coward”, stayed at the hotel — maybe stalking Mr. Howard.  “Black Jack” Ketchum spent time here. He’s the outlaw whose head accidentally popped off during his hanging in nearby Union County.  There are 26 documented killings – some outright murders – that took place in or around the St. James Hotel. The saloon was ground zero for much of the trouble. There are many stories. Three Buffalo Soldiers were gunned down in the saloon in 1876. T.J. Wright, who won the hotel in a card game, was shot in the back as he victoriously walked back to his room where he promptly died. He’s a restless spirit and his room, Room 18, is sealed and not available for guests due to too many unexplained happenings.  Of course, these old hotels have a reputation for hauntings but I did not experience anything strange during my stay.

The original hotel saloon is now the dining room and there are over twenty bullet holes identified in the ceiling. The current saloon is impressive and the polished wood backbar dates to the early 1900s. There is a nice restaurant that was busy but not crowded when I stayed there on a Friday night. Reservations are sometimes advisable. I indulged myself with chicken-fried steak for dinner and it was very good. The hotel does not provide breakfast with your room but the breakfast menu selection was excellent and reasonable. There are two dining areas.

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The hotel lobby provides ample sitting room for socializing. You will find some interesting bronze, Remington-style, statues in the lobby and in the hallways. The main hallway on the first floor provides a great deal of information and displays about the hotel’s history and some of its famous guests.

I’ve only briefly touched on some of the history and the guests that have stayed at the St. James. The place is well worth a visit even if you do not stay in the historical rooms. The annex rooms are more modern.

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I loved the place. It is a bit pricey but there’s not much else like it. I would stay here again and try out the annex rooms. I have no real interest in ghosts so that alone would not bring me back but apparently others like the idea. I like the history of the place and how it has been preserved and maintained.

There are other things to do in Cimarron. There is a small brewery in town, the Blu Dragonfly, and they have good beer and excellent BBQ. The Philmont Boy Scout Ranch covers much of the mountain area to the west of town and there is a Scouting Museum a few miles south at the entrance to the ranch. The Cimarron River and Cimarron Canyon State Park are close by and offer some good trout fishing. The geology of the area is interesting — there was gold here. A huge forest fire burned much of the forest west of town but it is being stabilized and in recovery.

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