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Hotel echoes with legends, history

CIMARRON, N.M. — The door to Room 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 Mary 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 Abraham 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," said Roger Smith, the hotel's proprietor.

Karen Hudson of Albuquerque stayed at the hotel several times after seeing it featured on the Lifetime cable show "Unsolved Mysteries." "It's charming, it's enchanting, captivating and haunted," she said.

On their 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.

There are no air conditioners, phones or televisions in the rooms, and some rooms lack private bathrooms. 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 a dining room that was originally 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.

"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."