(CN) — A lit cigarette ignited table cloths in the basement of Tucson’s Hotel Congress on Jan. 22, 1934, causing a fire that eventually engulfed the third floor. Guests ran into the street, many still in their underwear. Two men reportedly bribed firefighters to retrieve their luggage.
Later recognizing the men as members of John Dillinger’s gang, the firefighters tipped off the police — resulting in a stakeout that nabbed the infamous bank robber and his men.
“In a space of five hours, without firing a single shot, the police of small-town Tucson had done what the combined forces of several states and the FBI had failed to accomplish,” according to the hotel’s website.
When captured, legend has it that Dillinger muttered, “Well, I’ll be damned.”
“Yeah, but is it haunted?” I asked our local bureau chief when she suggested the hotel.
She had just praised the 1920s-era decor of the rooms at the hotel — which includes old-fashioned radios and furniture — and the prime location on Congress Street, where she noted “pretty much everything” happens in Tucson.
She said that the rock club is great if you’re planning on attending the show, but can be problematic for light sleepers or those who bed down early.
“But they give out earplugs at the front desk,” she told me. I discovered they now leave them in the rooms.
The local bureau chief knows my affinity for supposedly haunted hotels after I spent a night in the haunted Hotel Andaluz while hiring in Albuquerque a few years back. I stayed in one of the “haunted” rooms but I didn’t experience anything supernatural, though my perhaps too-logical brain concluded that the rattling pipes might seem like the work of ghosts to the more susceptible. I chalked it up to old plumbing. That hotel, Conrad Hilton’s fourth, was built in 1939, after all.
“Not that I know of,” she replied.
“Ah well, you can’t have everything.”
I Googled “Hotel Tucson” and the dropdown menu gave me multiple suggestions, the first of which was “Hotel Tucson Haunted?”
Rock and roll and ghosts (I didn’t know about the Dillinger connection yet)? How could I resist?
“Our computers are running very slowly today. My apologies, sir,” the voice on the other end of the line said.
“It’s just those ghosts messing with ya,” I replied.
“That’s exactly right,” he said.
According to the website of the Tucson Museum, the hotel boasts the spirit of a man murdered during a poker game and then hidden under a bed so the game could continue. He has been seen peering out of second-story windows ever since.
The more famous ghost is that of a barmaid from the 1940s who, after the breakup of her relationship with a high-ranking local official, died in a hail of gunfire after a late-night standoff with local authorities. Somehow her death was ruled a suicide.
Bullet holes supposedly remain in the closet of her room. Guests have reported hearing strange noises and seeing the apparition of the woman walking down the hallway on the second floor, and in the room’s bathroom.
I began the online reservation process, but heeded the warning to call the hotel for a quieter room.
“That is really good advice,” the clerk on the phone said. “Let’s try to put you as far away from the nightclub as possible.”
“OK, great,” I said. “Room 242 is the haunted one, right?”
“Yeah, but it’s directly above the nightclub,” he answered.
“Oh well, I guess I’ll just have to stick my ear to the door and see if I can hear anything.”
After checking in a few days later I headed to the Tap Room bar on the first floor, a “real old Arizona bar,” according to our local reporter. The long, old dark wood bar, backed up by a large mirror, makes the fairly small room seem bigger than it is.
I enjoyed a Kilt Lifter Scottish-Style Ale from the Four Peaks Brewing in Tempe, intermittently reading emails, chatting up the bartender and observing the early arrivers for that night’s band, indie-pop group Givers.
After dropping my computer back in the room I meandered around town a bit, stopping by the Borderlands Brewery for a tasting flight, before going to the Downtown Kitchen for dinner — another stellar recommendation from the local bureau chief. The chef, Janos Wilder, won the James Beard Award in 2000 for best chef in the Southwest.
Though the inside of the restaurant was almost empty, the outside patio was busy. At over 80 degrees, it was still too hot for this bureau chief to sit outside. Besides, I have an affinity for eating my dinner at the bar and talking to the bartender and other barflies.
The bartender told me that while the downtown area is fairly built up, just a short distance away the neighborhoods have dirt roads and you’re really in the desert.
The wildlife, having spent the day hiding from the heat as much as from the people, comes out at night.
“When I walk home at night after work, I can feel the desert coming alive around me,” he said.
He talked about how wide open the world feels in the desert, a stark contrast to the woods in Oregon where he was raised.
Walking through the hotel lobby after dinner I noticed the music was coming through clear enough from the venue below that you could more or less listen to the band without buying a ticket.
I found a seat in the back of the outdoor patio, where I nursed a Tucson-brewed Dragoon IPA before heading off to bed. I fell asleep to the bustle of a still-rocking downtown Tucson, though the band at the hotel had finished their set a while back.
Alas, I did not experience anything supernatural. But maybe I just couldn’t hear the ghosts over the din and, exhausted after a long day, perhaps I slept too deeply for them to disturb me.
While checking out the following morning — after first putting my rental car keys on the counter and realizing my mistake, which I blamed on a lack of sleep — I told the female desk clerk, “You have a great thing going on here, but you know that already.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty cool,” she said. “But it’s loud. You can’t stay too long, kind of like Vegas.”
“True. I think next time I’ll stay here one night, then go somewhere else to sleep for the second, and then come back.”
The male clerk standing next to her laughed, and the female clerk said that was probably a smart strategy.
Who am I kidding? I’ll just stay at the Hotel Congress the whole time. I wouldn’t want to miss out on the fun, or the possibility of meeting up with a ghost. I’ve never been good at sleeping anyway.
An update: Stayed again. Still loud. Still no ghost.
About our coverage of Arizona
Courthouse News Service has provided daily coverage of Maricopa and Pima counties and the United States District Court for Arizona for more than a decade. CNS began regular in-person coverage of Yavapai County in 2009, Pinal County in 2015, and Mohave, Yuma and Cochise counties earlier this year. In the near future, CNS will begin regular in-person coverage in Coconino County.
Maricopa County Facts
County Seat: Phoenix
Population: 3.9 million
Named After: Maricopa Native American Tribe
Interesting tidbit: Phoenix is home to South Mountain Park, the nation’s largest city park. Coming in at more than 16,000 acres, the park features nearly 60 trails for hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding.
Read more CNS coverage of Maricopa County news
Judge finds Sheriff Joe Arpaio in civil contempt in racial profiling class action
Voting delays in Arizona’s presidential primary leads to DOJ investigation
9th Circuit OKs tribe’s casino 160 miles north of headquarters
Gov. Doug Ducey wants Arizona out of the 9th Circuit
Pima County Facts
County Seat: Tucson
Named After: Pima Native American Tribe
Interesting tidbit: Tucson is home to the University of Arizona. Founded in 1885, the land-grant university was the first in what was then the Arizona Territory. In the fall of 2015 total enrollment eclipsed 42,000 students.
Read more CNS coverage of Pima County news
Humanitarian Crisis on U.S.-Mexico Border
Famous Hendrix Guitar Allegedly Found in Tucson Store
Tucson Transit Strike Talks Grind On
Arizona Gay Marriage Ban Struck Down
Arizona E-Bench Projects Lauded
Pinal County Facts
County Seat: Florence
Named After: Pinal Peak, in what is now neighboring Gila County. A Spanish word, Pinal means pine grove.
Yavapai County Facts
County Seat: Prescott
Named After: Yavapai Native American Tribe, the principal inhabitants when Arizona was annexed by the United States
Interesting tidbit: The world-famous town of Sedona, with its distinctive red rocks and multiple vortices, straddles both Yavapai and Coconino counties.
Mohave County Facts
County Seat: Kingman
Named After: The Mohave Native American people
Interesting tidbit: Part of the Grand Canyon is in Mohave County.
Yuma County Facts
County Seat: Yuma
Named After: A former name for the Quechan Native American Tribe
Coconino County Facts
County Seat: Flagstaff
Named After: A former name applied to Native American groups including the Havusapai and Hualapai
Interesting tidbits: Part of the Grand Canyon is in Coconino County, which is the second largest county in the United States behind San Bernardino County in California.
Cochise County Facts
County Seat: Bisbee
Named After: An Apache chief and leader of an 1861 uprising against the American government
Interesting tidbit: In 1917, Bisbee was the site of a mass kidnapping and deportation of 1,300 striking mine workers, spearheaded by mining company Phelps Dodge. The workers were forced to board cattle cars by a gun-wielding posse, where they were shipped out to New Mexico. Twenty-one Phelps Dodge executives were arrested by the Justice Department for their involvement, but were later released after a judge found they did not violate federal law.
Read more CNS coverage of Pinal, Yavapai, Mohave, Yuma, Coconino and Cochise counties
Fundamentalist Towns Hit with $2.2 Million Verdict
Cop v. Cop at Pinal County ‘Titties & Beer’ Party
Detectives claim they were fired after reporting a lieutenant returned evidence to suspects
Ninth Circuit doubts Prescott’s authority to impose fluoride limit
Prescott Valley officials allegedly allowed toxic dumping
Photos: Chris Marshall/CNS; Tim Hull
- Ex-Pitcher Says Doping Probe Hurt Business
- Wal-Mart Workers Fight Settlement of Bias Suit