Written by Bud Russo
Continue your journey at a historic New Mexico hotel
As you tour New Mexico, you never know what surprises you’ll encounter. And, at day’s end, when you pick an inn for the night, there may be other surprises in store for you. Regardless of where you are, you’re sure to find a historic hotel regaled with period furnishings, historic artifacts, and even perhaps an apparition or two. Except for the ghosts, these hotels have all been upgraded with modern conveniences.
Located In: Las Vegas
Drive Time: 5 Hours
Address: 230 Plaza | Las Vegas, NM 87701 | Plazahotellvnm.com
New Mexico’s Las Vegas doesn’t have all the glitz of Nevada’s, although New Mexico’s was the first to have the name. In 1882, when the city was booming, a group of businessmen opened the Plaza Hotel. Before long, the upscale, three-story brick inn with its Victorian, Italianate facade came to be known as “The Belle of the Southwest.”
It was here that Theodore Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders” held their first reunion in 1899. A year later, Roosevelt returned to announce his presidential candidacy. Next to the Plaza, Charles Ilfeld opened his three-story Great Emporium, helping the Old Town Plaza to reign as the commercial center of northern New Mexico for three decades. Thus it remained until the Santa Fe Railroad built La Castañada Hotel, operated by Fred Harvey, a mile east of Las Vegas.
The Plaza continued over the years, albeit not living up to its name as the Belle of the Southwest. For a time, it was used as a dormitory for New Mexico Highland University students. In 1982, it was restored to its roots by Wid Slick and his partners. The hotel has 37 guest rooms and a dining room. The Ilfeld building was purchased in 2006, outfitted with another 35 rooms, along with meeting and banquet space. Eight years later, Allan Affeldt purchased both the Plaza and La Castañada, and is updating and restoring both.
For history buffs, the lobby bar is named Byron T, after former owner Byron T. Mills, whose ghost is said to haunt the building.
St. James Hotel
Located In: Cimmaron
Drive Time: 6 Hours
Address: 617 S Collison Ave. | Cimarron, NM 87714 | Exstjames.com
Built in 1870 by Henri Lambert, the St. James (originally called Lambert’s Inn) is endemic of the Wild West. Among its many guests were Black Jack Ketchum, Wyatt Earp, Pat Garrett, General Philip Sheridan, and even artist Fredrick Remington. In its wilder times, hotel guests witnessed at least 26 murders. Today, diners can entertain themselves trying to locate 22 bullet holes remaining in the dining room ceiling.
Lambert, personal chef to President Lincoln, made his way west following the Civil War in search of gold. However, he found his wealth in St. James Hotel’s saloon and restaurant. So popular was it with cowboys and travelers, Lambert added guest rooms in 1880. His hotel was soon considered one of the most elegant, west of the Mississippi.
Legends of ghosts abound in the St. James. A former manager claimed people never saw them, “but you feel and hear them.” Guests have sensed cold spots in rooms and the lingering smell of cigar smoke, although smoking is prohibited. Room 18 is kept locked because it’s supposed to house the ill-tempered ghost of Thomas James Wright, murdered for his poker winnings at the room’s entrance.
The Wortley Hotel
Located In: Lincoln
Drive Time: 3 Hours
Address: 585 Calle la Placita| Lincoln, NM 88338 | Wortleyhotel.com
Lincoln today is a mile-long, living-history museum, preserving buildings and stories dating to the infamous Lincoln County War of 1878. It wasn’t a battle by competing ranchers over grazing rights, but rather of two mercantile owners, one holding a monopoly and the other trying to usurp it.
The Wortley Hotel had a significant role in the conflict. Billy the Kid had been convicted of killing Sheriff William Brady and was in Lincoln for execution, but escaped. Hearing shots while dining at The Wortley, Jailer Robert Ollinger ran into the street, where Billy shot him dead.
In the 137 years since, Katharine Marsh, The Wortley’s owner, explains no other guest has been gunned down. That’s saying something, when you consider President Rutherford Hayes once called Lincoln’s main drag “the most dangerous street in America.” Today, that turmoil is just a memory.
“As a Bed and Breakfast hotel, we treat you with 21st century standards while maintaining The Wortley’s historic character,” Katharine says.
With a historic dining room and bar, period guest rooms with traditional furniture and late 19th century curios throughout, one visit to The Wortley will leave you impressed. The Wortley has seven guest rooms, four with antique queen beds. Each has a private bathroom and wood-burning fireplace. Mornings feature home-cooked breakfasts you’ll need all day to work off.
Room 18 is kept locked because it’s supposed to house the ill-tempered ghost of Thomas James Wright, murdered for his poker winnings at the room’s entrance.
Located In: Clayton
Drive Time: 7 Hours
Address: 15 Main St | Clayton, NM 88415 | hoteleklund.com
“One of the most iconic bars in New Mexico.”
The original building comprising Hotel Eklund was built in 1892 as a saloon and gambling hall. Two years later, Carl Eklund purchased and expanded the property until it reached its present configuration of 24 guest rooms, two dining rooms, and, say owners Keith and Jeannette Barra, “one of the most iconic bars in New Mexico.”
Reviewing the Eklund, one guest wrote, “We walked into a 19th century hotel. It was three stories, built of quarried stone, and anchored in the hardpan like a fortress against the wind. After dinner, as we walked outside under a turquoise sky, I wondered if cattle and railroad barons hosted champagne dinners or if cowboys off the Goodnight-Loving Trail had knocked back whiskey, while shooting holes in the ceiling.”
The Barras add, “For over 100 years the Eklund has been Clayton’s premier boutique hotel, dedicated to preserving the Wild West experience for the modern traveler.”
The Palace Hotel
Located In: Silver City
Drive Time: 2 Hours
Address: 106 W. Broadway | Silver City, NM 88061 | Silvercitypalacehotel.com
Located in historic downtown Silver City, The Palace Hotel is reminiscent of small European inns. Owner Nancy Thompson Johnson has restored the hotel, dating to 1882, offering 20 “charming rooms and suites.” The building was originally the Meredith and Ailman Bank, painted dark green with an imposing iron-front facade, hauled by ox cart from St. Louis that year.
At the top of the stairs to the guest rooms is a skylit lounge for quiet reading, intimate conversations, and making new friends. The lounge is also where guests enjoy a continental breakfast.
The Silver City Enterprise announced the opening of the hotel on March 1, 1900. “The new owner, Max Schutz, spared no pains or expense to make the new hotel an up-to-date house in every respect,” the paper reported. “It has every modern convenience such as closets, bathrooms, and electric lights. The building renders the conveniences unexcelled by any hotel in the city.”
Like most historic New Mexican hotels, some managers have claimed The Palace is inhabited by ghosts, perhaps the spirit of the lady in the red dress, whose portrait hangs in the lobby. Not so, says Ms. Johnson. There are no ghosts in The Palace. And the lady in red? “That,” she says, “is my husband Tom’s original painting of actress Jane Russell in Howard Hughes film, The Outlaw.”
Located in historic downtown Silver City, The Palace Hotel is reminiscent of small European inns.
El Rancho Hotel
Located In: Gallup
Drive Time: 5 Hours
Address: 1000 E. Highway 66 Gallup, | NM 87301 | Route66hotels.org
El Rancho on Route 66 in Gallup was built in 1936 for R.E. Griffin, brother of famed movie director D.W. Griffin. From its first day, the hotel was where movie stars and directors stayed when shooting films. It had a rustic elegance, permitting guests to “rough it” in comfort, and boasted superior service with staff trained by the Fred Harvey Company.
By the 1960s, neither John Ford nor John Wayne came to town any longer. The lure of the West on the silver screen had faded. But more people came to see the West for themselves. El Rancho survived without the mystique of Hollywood to support it, although it grew less and less popular. “Fifty years after the hotel opened, they had a bankruptcy auction,” says Amelia Ortega-Crowther, one of two sisters who now own the hotel. “My dad purchased it for $500,000. That was a good price for 1987, but still a lot of money.”
Armand Ortega restored the hotel, adding bathrooms to each room. (Previously, bathrooms were communal at the end of the hall.) Most of the furnishings acquired with the building was unusable, so Ortega had a company in Grants build new furniture for him.
Rooms today have heavy, rustic night tables and dressers, and a wagon-wheel headboard for each bed. While all this was done in the late 1980s, it has the look and feel of the 1930s. Still, rooms have modern flat-screen TVs and WiFi connections.
The expansive lobby has a second-story perimeter balcony. Mounted deer heads hang on either side of gracefully curving wooden staircases, in between which is a massive stone fireplace. Photos of movie stars are mounted on the wall, and it’s like wandering through a picture book of classic Hollywood. More than 300 stars were guests at the hotel. Each room is named after a movie star, you can request the room named after the Hollywood legend you remember best.
Blue Swallow Motel
Located In: Tucumcari
Drive Time: 5 Hours
Address: 815 East Route 66 Boulevard | Tucumcari, NM 88401 |Blueswallowmotel.com
Among the classic motor courts along Route 66 sits the Blue Swallow. It’s been owned and operated by people who have always had a love for serving guests and preserving history.
In 1958, Lillian Redman’s husband, Floyd, bought the motel from Ted Jones. W.A. Huggins had opened the motor court in 1941 and sold it to Jones a year later. After her husband died, Lillian ran it for four decades, intent on keeping it open even after Interstate 40 had made Route 66 redundant. She had arrived in New Mexico by covered wagon in 1915 and had been a Tucumcari resident since 1923. She just couldn’t let go.
In 1998, Lillian sold to Dale and Hilda Bakke, who upgraded electrical service, carpeted the rooms, and replaced old furniture. They also installed the vintage rotary telephones and lighting fixtures that remain today.
Then, in 2011, Kevin and Nancy Mueller of Detroit took an extended trip. “We did a two-week trip on Route 66 in late March, which included a five-night stay at the Blue Swallow,” Mueller says. By the end of their stay, they’d negotiated the sales agreement.
The Blue Swallow is not just a motel. It’s a trip back in time; a place where you can experience what travel was like 75 years ago. The Muellers have combined vintage character and charm with premium upscale comforts. Rooms are painted with colors predominant in the years before World War II. Sinks have separate hot and cold water faucets and stoppers to mix the right temperature in the original wash basins. Furniture is of the period, but the mattresses, linens, and towels are up to date. Each room also has a flat-screen TV, modern refrigerated air and heat.
“The Lillian Redman suite is special, just like Lillian,” Mueller says. It includes an antique clawfoot tub and terry bathrobes embroidered with the Blue Swallow logo. Choose from a dozen rooms and suites. Then find a comfortable chair out front to enjoy cool evenings and make new friends … just like the “good old days.”