History within four walls: the St. James Hotel in Cimarron, New Mexico

Miss D. and I spent Tuesday night at the St. James Hotel in Cimarron, New Mexico.

As a historic building, it’s fascinating, with authentic furniture, fixtures and relics of its past that are meat and drink to those interested in such things.

The hotel was a major way station in northern New Mexico during the years of the so-called Wild West.  As Wikipedia notes:

The St. James was first built in 1872, on the recommendation of U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant, by Henri (later Henry) Lambert, personal chef to President Abraham Lincoln. Lambert moved west and settled in Elizabethtown, New Mexico, with hopes of making a wealthy strike. When he found little gold, he opened a restaurant and saloon. At this time, Elizabethtown, Cimarron, and much of the surrounding area was owned by Lucien B. Maxwell and was a part of the huge Maxwell Land Grant. Maxwell enticed Lambert to come to Cimarron, whereupon he founded the Lambert Inn, which would later be renamed the St. James.

In its day, the St. James was visited by many famous lawmen and notorious outlaws and was the scene of many murders. A favorite saying in the area became “It appears Lambert had himself another man for breakfast.” and the usual question around Cimarron was “Who was killed at Lambert’s last night?” Wyatt Earp, his brother Morgan, and their wives stayed at the Inn on their way to Tombstone, Arizona. Jesse James always stayed in Room 14. Buffalo Bill Cody stayed at the Inn and took an entire village of Native Americans living nearby on the road with his show. The outlaw Davy Crockett, a descendant of the original Davy Crockett, killed three Buffalo Soldiers inside the hotel’s bar room in 1876. Other notable customers were Clay Allison, Black Jack Ketchum, and Annie Oakley.

In 1901, when Henry Lambert’s sons replaced the roof of the St. James, they found many bullet holes. A double layer of hard wood stopped anyone sleeping upstairs from being killed. Today, the dining room ceiling still holds some twenty bullet holes.

The hotel bar is infamous for the number of gunfights that took place there, and the number of people who died as a result.  The notorious Clay Allison (who ranched in the area) was a regular there, demonstrated by the number of fatalities he caused.  This list is provided to guests by the hotel.  Click the image for a larger, more readable view.

The hotel is said to be haunted by the ghosts of some of those who died there, with one room (no. 18) permanently locked and closed to visitors because of the allegedly malevolent nature of the purported poltergeist residing there.  You can read more about it here.  The main hotel is filled with photographs and relics of that period, and will repay a visit by anyone wanting to “reach out and touch” the history of the Old West.

Unfortunately, as modern accommodation, the St. James leaves a lot to be desired, judging by our room in one of the newer annexes.  For a start, it offers no luggage carts at all!  In this day and age, particularly with bags and suitcases having to be carried in from the street and (in our case) across a courtyard, surely that’s a basic necessity?  The receptionist was kind enough to summon a maintenance man to help us carry our bags to the room, but no-one was available when we checked out, so we had to make multiple journeys ourselves, in the rain.  I wasn’t impressed.

The room also gave cause for concern.  It was neat and clean, to be sure, but the mattresses and beds were so soft as to provide almost no support at all, which meant that both Miss D. and myself suffered from sore backs in the morning.  The heating arrangements were adequate, but confusing, with an old-style heating system around the baseboards plus a window unit that could provide warm or cool air, according to its settings.  Figuring out how to balance the two was tricky.  Then, there was no desk or writing area whatsoever – surely a basic necessity in these days of laptop computers?  We had to rest our laptops on our beds, which isn’t good for their ventilation systems.  The complimentary internet access was more alleged than real, with frequent interruptions in service and occasional complete shut-downs lasting fifteen minutes or more.  (That may be the result of poor signal reception in the annex, rather than the main hotel;  I couldn’t say for sure.)

The restaurant was also somewhat disappointing.  The food was well-cooked and tasty, but the selection was very limited.  In a hotel founded by a chef, I’d hoped for a more extensive menu.  I suppose, to be fair, the demand for it in a relatively poor area such as northern New Mexico, and a run-down town like Cimarron, simply doesn’t cost-justify that, but it’s still a pity.  I enjoyed my bison burger, but Miss D. was suffering from altitude sickness after almost a week at what are (for us) nosebleed altitudes, so she couldn’t finish hers.  It made a suitable midnight snack, later that evening.

The hotel’s charges appeared excessive.  Including local taxes, we paid over $145 for our room for one night.  That’s more than a much better equipped and more comfortable room would cost us in almost any other town, at any quality hotel such as a Hampton Inn or Homewood Suites.  We won’t willingly stay at the St. James again under such conditions unless the hotel at least halves its prices.  They clearly expect visitors to pay them for the sake of the history of the building and its artifacts, and perhaps to be able to say that one has slept in the same room as a famous historical figure.  Sorry.  Neither works for me.  As a hotel, this was not value for money.

So, I guess I’m in two minds about the St. James Hotel.  As an historical location filled with interesting artifacts, it’s well worth a visit.  From the perspective of a place to sleep, based on the room we were allocated, I don’t think it’s an attractive destination.  I suppose “you pays your money and you makes your choice”, as the old saw reminds us.



  1. $12 was a steep price to pay for a place to lay one's head.
    OTOH, I offered my 6 year old daughter a room with heat in winter for the weekend or a room without heat but with hot water. The Dallas/Ft Worth jet base was such a wonder of suck-it-up and they weren't even dealing with reservists. It is just how they rolled.

  2. My parents talked of once being forced by weather to stay in a hotel in Powell, Wyoming, just a few miles shot of their actual destination. This place was old, old school so they consciously asked to have a room near the bathroom, which they got. Inconveniently, the toilet room was down at the other end of the hall.

    Cody, Wyoming near Powell has the Irma Hotel. No shootings but it was established by Buffalo Bill and named after his daughter. The cherry-wood back bar there was a gift from Queen Victoria.

  3. Lots of fun reading about your travels around CO and NM and your impressions of places I have knocked around in forever.

    Re food, the hotel, etc. Food was very different in the Rocky Mountain West even 50-60 years ago when I was a kid. My grandma's mom was a cook in a bunkhouse and my grandma cooked accordingly. Fresh fruits and vegetable were rare in the winter up in Montana even when I was little. I can rattle on of course. Of course things are very different now.

    Anyway flavors and menus were quite different in a lot of ways even when I was little let alone 150 years ago. There is a wonderful book I have that you may like that gives lots of good info, period stories etc. "Eating Up the Santa Fe Trail: Recipes and Lore from the Old West" by Samuel P. Arnold. I suspect that Ames was probably late enough to the game that he never ate boudins (buffalo guts complete with partially digested grass roasted in the camp fire) but I bet he ate lots of the things mentioned in the book!

  4. A sign of the times in that list of killings – Black soldiers were listed as such, all others were listed by name… not condoning, just an observation…

  5. Head up to Sheridan Wyoming. It is near the Custer Battle field and there is a hotel there made out of an old grain silo. Nice rooms and quiet. Not bad pricing as I recall.

  6. I stayed at the St. James back around 1994-1995. I was heading down to Taos with my at-the-time girlfriend. It was a fun place to stay for a night, but I wouldn't go back, either. I don't remember which room we had.

    I remember they claimed that the painting in the stairwell (conquistadors, IIRC) showed a ghost, but to me, it looked like an extra figure the artist painted over was starting to show through.

  7. If you’re over ~5’8” also double the check the beds in the main hotel before selecting one of those rooms. I, at 5’8”, had only a few inches total clearance for head and feet in those antique beds. Super cool historical building but stay there for that as the modern amenities are, umm, lacking as described. I took lots of photos on my trip back as I hadn’t when a medic one summer there at Philmont.

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