The Witching Hour

Haunted Lodgings: Hotel Congress

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At 311 E Congress Street in Tucson, Arizona you’ll find a virtual vortex in time because this little Hotel still functions with a nostalgia for all things 1920’s. Not only do they still do things “old school”, but they have a few authentic “old school” residents who have yet to leave the premises.

The hotel’s past starts in 1919, when it was built to serve as a repository for the weary, travel-worn souls from the Southern Pacific Railroad, which is just across the street and now an AmTrack station (which is also haunted). The roaring twenties brought the high-rollers and travelers, who would rest their heels and visit the hotel’s infamous “Tap Room”. What really made Hotel Congress famous, however, is the role it played in the capture of John Dillinger– the FBI’s public enemy number one in the 1930’s.

A Reenactment of the Hotel Congress Fire which resulted in the capture of John Dillinger.

While the gangster never actually stayed in the hotel– rather in a house not too far away on 2nd Street– his gang did stay at Hotel Congress. In fact, they were staying in a small, out-of-the-way town like Tucson to “lay low”. Unfortunately for them, in the early hours of January 22, 1934, a fire broke out in the basement of Hotel Congress and worked its way up the elevator shaft. The whole building was evacuated.

Two firemen were suspicious when they were given a generous $12 tip by several of the third floor guests who wanted their bags retrieved from the fire. The firemen retrieved the bags, later discovering that they’d recovered from the fire some $23,816 in cash and a small arsenal of firearms– this was after one fireman recognized a member of the Dillinger Gang in True Detective Magazine. Tucson police were called in and they managed to round up the whole gang, including John Dillinger himself, without firing a single shot. When captured, Dillinger simply muttered, “Well, I’ll be damned!”

A scene from the Dillinger Days reenactment at Hotel Congress.

The City of Tucson and Hotel Congress commemorate John Dillinger’s capture every January with a celebration called Dillinger Days. During this celebration, they have a vintage car show, reenactments of John Dillinger’s Tucson capture, tours of the Hotel Congress and they even put John Dillinger’s guns on display at the downtown museum. While the hotel’s ties to John Dillinger’s capture are certainly noteworthy, the hotel has other charms which make this a great historical locale.

In the late 1930’s and 1940’s Hotel Congress’ Tap Room served as the watering hole for infamous western artist and rodeo cowboy Pete Martinez. He liked the place so much that he gifted the hotel with several works of his art. Hotel Congress kept the art, which hangs proudly on display in the Tap Room, and the hotel now boasts having the largest gallery of Martinez’ artwork.

Wandering artist, Larry Boyce also paid a visit to Hotel Congress. In 1989, he painted the lobby in “southwestern style”.

The hotel also offers dining in a little cafe called “Cup Cafe”, which opened in the 1990’s. While the cafe itself isn’t terribly infamous, it does have probably the most interesting floor you’ll ever find in a building. 177,000 pennies decorate the floor in one of the cafe’s rooms.

In the 1970’s the hotel served as a home to several artists in residence. Lately, however, the hotel has continued to evolve while keeping that ambiance of 1920’s nostalgia– it serves as a local night-spot and a gathering place, but also maintains some old traditions.

Switchboard behind the front desk of the Hotel Congress.

The hotel itself is heated by a boiler system– heated water pumped through pipes which radiates heat into the rooms. There are no televisions in individual rooms. The phones are all rotary phones which still connect to the original switchboard at the front desk. All the furniture in the rooms is original from the 1920’s. Lastly, there is no elevator– it was never replaced after the 1934 fire. The third floor also was never replaced after the fire.

If you want to go further back in the history of downtown Tucson, you’ll find the whole downtown area seems to have its own, unusual charm… but then again, with the majority of the downtown area being over an old Papago Indian burial ground it’s also ripe with supernatural activity. That activity extends to the Hotel Congress, which isn’t afraid to boast about its specters.

Room 214

The door to Room 214 of Hotel Congress.

The door to room 214 is rather odd in appearance. From a distance, the door appears to be slanted downwards 10-15 degrees towards the left. The floor also appears to rise up and then curve downward before the door; however, when you walk closer to the door, the angle changes and the door straightens out or bends another direction. I’ve been told that the door has been surveyed and checked with a level– I was planning on checking it out for myself during Dillinger Days this year, but was crunched for time. I’ve heard the door is perfectly straight and the door frame is parallel to the walls, yet it appears crooked.

Room 214 is allegedly the location of a successful suicide attempt (by shotgun), and is called the “suicide room” by many who know its history. The room was cleaned and most of the shot was removed from the wall, but it’s rumored that there is still some shot that was never removed from the wall. Stay in this room if you DARE.

Sadly, this room was not the only room to have played witness to a successful suicide attempt…

Inside Room 214 of Hotel Congress.

Room 242

Room 242 is home of Hotel Congress’ most active ghost– a woman from the mid-1990’s who decidedly ended her life by discharging her gun through her skull in the bathroom no less. The bullet traveled through the bathroom wall and into the closet. If you stay in this room and look closely at the closet, you can still find the bullet hole.

Like many hotel guests who visit after their time on this Earth has passed, this ghostly gal loves to toy with guests. She is frequently seen as a full-body apparition in front of the room or inside Room 242. People staying in 242 often report having dreams of this mysterious lady– some even claimed to have awakened to see her standing or sitting at the foot of the bed watching them sleep. She loves to try to touch guests and make attempts to talk to them or wake them.

Room 220

Inside Room 220 of Hotel Congress.

Room 220 housed the last of long term residents. Vince Szuda checked in late 1950’s and lived in the hotel for a mere $7/night. The hotel honored this room rate until his passing, at the age of 84, on February 18, 2001. Now, his rent is free and his presence is a friendly reminder of the man who once resided in the hotel.

In life, Vince was a helpful fix-it man. He was constantly borrowing butter knives from Cup Cafe to use as screwdrivers to fix things throughout the hotel. Staff say Vince still keeps the hotel ship-shape in the afterlife. Current staff members still find butter knives in random places throughout the hotel– a friendly reminder that Vince is still with them.

Other Ghosts

One maintenance worker’s ghostly encounter is described in the book Southern Arizona’s Most Haunted as follows:

The maintenance man has seen the apparition of a cowboy in the basement. The man was going into the basement’s paint room to pick up some paint for a project he was working on. He opened the door and saw the ghost of a cowboy standing in front of him, but he only saw this ghost from the waist up. The maintenance man was in such a rush, he walked through the ghost who was standing there, got what he needed, then walked out of the room. It all happened within a few seconds. It was not until moments later that he realized that he had walked through a spirit entity.

Down the hallway from Room 214, you’ll cross beneath an archway. It is past this archway where there have been reports of a maid’s ghost who has been seen bringing towels and sheets into rooms and turning them down as she would have done while she was living.

Downstairs in the bar area, there is the ghost of a WWII Veteran who sits at the end of the bar, where he spun tales of his war days when he was living. You can sometimes see him out of the corner of your eye. He also likes to play with the volume on the juke box– turning it up for his favorite songs and down for songs he’s not terribly fond of. Employees also leave the ghost 50 cents for the jukebox when they lock up for the night.

There’s also reportedly the ghost of an old man who has been seen peering out the second story window on the northwest side of the building. It was thought that he was someone who may have died in the fire that resulted in the capture of the Dillinger Gang.

Another woman’s ghost enjoys making a grand entrance down the stairs. You can tell when she’s around by her distinctive rose perfume.

Hotel Congress Summary

If you pay a visit to Tucson, Hotel Congress is a must see– especially if you visit towards the end of January, when they host Dillinger Days. It’s a great night spot and a perfect place for any ghost-hunting history buffs to visit.

Hotel Congress’ Website: http://www.hotelcongress.com/

Sources:
* My experiences downtown on tours, reading plaques, listening to stories… you know, that sort of thing.
* http://www.hotelcongress.com/hotel-congress/hotel-history/
* Gardner, Renee. “Southern Arizona’s Most Haunted”. Atglen, Pennsylvania: Schiffler Publishing Ltd., 2010. pp 28-31.

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