—Ed. Note: Doc Leonetti recently traveled to the St. James Hotel and takes us with him as he chats up the locals and delves into the history of the place.
Front desk manager Thea Maestas, originally from Cimarron, used to do seasonal serving at the St. James Hotel in Cimarron, New Mexico prior to her applying for her new executive position. She has 10 years of banking experience to buttress her efforts in her new role.
“Once the hotel came under new management it was a fantastic place to work,” explained Maestas. “Working at the front desk induced me into studying the history we had to know. I really dove into the history of all the individuals who have stayed at the St. James Hotel back in that time. Lucian Maxwell was an important part of Cimarron history, so I educated myself about him. The whole town reeks of history, and I can’t seem to get away from it. I love all the history of this area. I have come to love history in general.”
Cimarron, a Spanish word denoting ‘unruly’ and ‘wild,’ lived up to its name in the unrestrained and chaotic history of the area. Back in the day, there was minimal law enforcement. Disagreements were settled with guns, and in numerous cases vigilantes mitigated disputes.
The hamlet of Cimarron was founded in 1842 with the establishment of the Beaubien-Miranda Land Grant. Lucian B. Maxwell, a fur trapper from Illinois, came upon the place and married one of Beaubien’s six daughters, Luz. Cimarron itself was established in 1861. The settlement has evolved into a small present-day community of approximately 2,000, was highly attractive to numerous mountain men, outlaws, trappers, gold seekers, traders, and cowboys, not a good mix in a lawless and reckless society.
The best was yet to come.
Henry Lambert, a chef from Nantes, Loire-Atlantique, Pays de la Loire, France, was born in 1838. His parents planned for him to study for the priesthood, but the young fella, at 12 years of age, dreamed of a life of adventure and girls, escaped to America and eventually worked his way west and settled down in Cimarron where he established the St. James Hotel. And, the rest of the story for any history buff is, well, a distinct and clear picture of what the real Wild West was really like.
Between the years 1872 and 1875, the nefarious Clay Allison killed 16 men himself in the hotel bar. Lambert shot and killed two of his patrons. All told, 27 men were shot in the St. James, with the exception of Leficiano Butarus who was gunned down outside the hotel. Numerous individuals who were killed in the community would subsequently be hauled to the hotel where they were laid out on the pool table in the bar to be prepared for burial.
Allison himself killed 16 of the 27. That was just the beginning. Tom Sunday shot John Black in 1872 and B. Cooper in 1873, Allison shot Frank Harris in 1874, and in the following year he also killed Manual Cardenas, five black soldiers, and Francisco “Pancho” Griego. The list of killings is seemingly endless; in 1876, Gus Heffron and Davey Crockett II killed three black soldiers. In 1881 Joe McCurdy killed John Stewart, in1882 Bob Ford killed Bill Curren, and in 1884 “Prairie Dog” Payne shot Frank Shook and Lambert shot Thomas Rodriguez. It was a lucrative year for the killing field at the St. James.
And there were myriad other colorful people, famous and infamous, who frequented the place. The Earp’s stopped by on their way to Tombstone, Arizona. Buffalo Bill Cody befriended the Lamberts and was there for the birth of their first child, Lew Wallace, territorial governor of New Mexico, wrote part of his novel ‘Ben Hur’ while staying there, Zane Grey stopped by while working on his novel ‘Fighting Caravans’ while staying in room 22. Black Jack Ketchum, William Bonny (Billy the Kid) and Jesse James also slept there. James used an alias in a futile attempt to try to hide his identity.
Every person who visits the hotel is provided with a tongue-in-cheek hand-out, “Express St. James Hotel Guest Rules,” which is humorous on the surface, but undergirded with a sense of the macabre reality of the time.
Following are a few examples:
n Guests of the hotel will please bear in mind that we will not be responsible for either their lives or their property.
n There are places convenient where valuables may be deposited for safe-keeping, and where life and accidental insurance policies may be secured.
n Guests wishing to attract the attention of a waiter are requested to call or whistle for him. This is better than shooting him through the ear or nose and besides, it will save funeral expenses.
n This hotel positively will not bear part of the funeral expenses of people who get killed while stopping here – not even those who are forced to shoot in the interest of society and good order.
n Guests are requested to use proper care and caution when shooting at each other in the dining room, as a reckless discharge of firearms is liable to result in the unnecessary killing of innocent and unsuspecting parties.
And the beat goes on. Any aficionado of the Old West will be enamored by the history that reeks from the hotel, and, essentially, numerous other historical places to see and discover in this historic hamlet in northern New Mexico. Only 40 miles distant on highway 64 from Raton, it is truly a historical, must see delight. One only needs to sit in the hotel bar and count the bullet holes in the ceiling, all 30-plus of them, while dining on a good meal and to regress in time and imagine what it must have been like.
Operations Manager Teri Caid, as does Thea Maestas, is also enamored by ‘the Place’ that sits in the heart of Cimarron. “I was hired on August 14 and took over the hotel as manager in January 2015,” said Caid who is originally from Arizona. “It was a sad day to me when Mr. Funk (Robert Fay Funk, owner) bought the property and encountered some bad luck. We had a big fire at Philmont (Boy Scout Ranch) and they were his biggest contributor, and now we’ve got COVID, so he’s putting money into the property to keep the hotel maintained and functioning. We’re going to undertake some outdoor services on our patio, limited in accordance to our COVID protocols.
“The history of the hotel is phenomenal. I think of the small boy (Henri Lambert) on a boat finding his way to Washington to cook for Abraham Lincoln. It’s real fun to bring it back to life. Many people who stay here all have a story about ghosts who still haunt the place. In 1920, some new paneling was installed in our bar ceiling. There were 200-300 bullet holes in it back then, now there only a little over 30 that can still be seen. There is so much history in this place and I love to share it with all the people who come here.”