Saturday, March 31, 2012

History Haunts the Paso Robles Inn

 For English 201 With Allysa Emerson

Haunted haunts three blocks from my own house? That possibility never occurred to me at any time during the past two and a quarter years I have lived near downtown Paso Robles, CA. As I quite unexpectedly learned last week that is quite the case at the Paso Robles Inn. Today the Paso Robles Inn attracts both travelers passing through the Central Coast of California as well as visitors for whom the Central Coast is destination. It's mineral baths and overall ambiance have been a draw since its construction was completed in 1891. Since that time great numbers of visitors, including my mother and her parents back in the 1940's and 1950's, as well as people both famous (Ignacy Paderewsky) and infamous (Frank and Jesse James) have found solace within her storied confines. Indeed, it is this very historicity that populates the inn with whatever spirits allegedly haunt it. Being a man of science with a passion for history I undertook an investigation of the place to learn its secrets and other more arcane lore. I visited the place both in daytime and at night in an attempt to wrap my mind around this place and flesh out fact from fiction.

By day the historic Paso Robles Inn looks, well, historical with its retro-style mission-style architecture that clearly dates it to before the advent of the modern fatuous infatuation with mission-style anything. There is nothing kitschy about this place in sharp contrast to the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo which is the penultimate monument to idiosyncratic architecture and interior design, cool as it may be. As I walk up the east-facing wood-framed glass door of the inn's coffee shop I cannot keep myself from snapping a photo of the round-shaped edifice capped with red brick shingles into which I am about to make egress. No Copper Kettle this, the Paso Robles Inn's coffee shop is much more understated than the pink-painted coffee shop of the Madonna Inn. This cute little flashback to a bygone era features more plain but more historic-looking furnishing and adornment, most notable to me being the retro-diner counters and largish wall murals featuring vignettes of early California history reaching back to the days of Alta California.

One mural in particular grabs my attention by showing a Mexican vaquero standing next to his horse while wearing what appears to be almost dress-like pantaloons with frilly-looking fringes at the bottom and immediately below that are aggressive-looking spurs on his riding boots. The frilly fringes jarringly contrast with the nasty-looking spurs not to mention the contrast with the Mexican machismo tradition.

I have come to the coffee shop first for the express purpose of indulging in a quick breakfast as a means of establishing a rapport with the staff in order that they might be more indulgent of my forthcoming questions. I sit down at the counter without prompting from the staff and am immediately greeted by a young and enthusiastic Jessica, a lovely young brunette with a pretty face and an ebullient manner. She provided me with a menu for my perusal and my eye is immediately drawn to the "Jesse James" breakfast sandwich to which I am unable to resist the impulse to order along with an orange juice. While waiting for my breakfast I interrogate Jessica who turns out to be a veritable gold mine of information about her workplace. In answer to my question about this place being haunted she cheerfully exclaims, "Quite a few people here have experienced weird thing over the years", and added, "Most of that seems to happen in the ballroom building out back".

After mining all I could out of her I spend the rest of my wait walking through the rest of the 100 Building which is the main structure of this inn. I leave the coffee shop and wend my way through the adjacent main restaurant dining hall en route to the foyer beyond. The fragrance of a traditional American breakfast fills the air with the olfactory evidence of bacon and sausage most pungently of all. My ears readily detect the din of dishes jostling and metal utensils tingling and the low hum of people conversing just inaudibly enough to be unable to make out what they are saying. This room is more elegantly appointed with linen table cloths being the norm and the furniture stylistically being more elegant and traditional than that in the coffee shop as one might expect.

I pass the restaurant hostess' wood lectern as I make my way out of the restaurant and enter the foyer that connects to the hotel office beyond and knowingly nod and smile at the blond woman "manning" it. This room features a vaulted ceiling replete with interior balcony leading into the El Matador bar on the second floor directly above the restaurant. There is a stairway leading up to it on the right fringed with a wrought iron railing. On the left is an antiquated revolving door leading out into the front parking lot. Directly ahead and above me is a high window allowing egress for most of the light in this otherwise dark and stark room relative to the restaurant dining hall and coffee shop. Despite the nearby food my nose detects little to none of that but rather a detectable scent of the agedness of this 1940's-era building which replaced the more grandiose one that famously burned down on this very location on the night of December 13, 1940, as a result of a careless smoker's discarded cigarette. On the left just beyond the staircase I notice a short hallway lead out onto the main inner courtyard of the inn.

Directly ahead of me is a doorless passage into the next room which features the front desk and office. The cozy fire burning in the rustic-looking period fireplace is quite noticeable even from back in the dining hall and visually dominates the room from its location situated on the north wall directly ahead of me. Next to it in the northeast corner of the room is the main door into the office from outside while the wood-paneled front desk dominates the southwestern quadrant of the room to my left. I am cordially greeted by Stevie, a nice-looking young woman with light brown, medium length hair dressed professionally with a matching demeanor. I ask her a few mundane questions about this place such as how many rooms does it have (98) and how many rooms feature hot spring saunas (36) and when it first opened (1891) and when it burned down (1940) and other such things. She does not seem too eager to discuss specifics of ghosts beyond simply acknowledging the basic facts that everybody here seems to know about. I ask her if she has any hand-outs about the history of this place to which she initially regrets to inform me she does not but then quickly corrects herself upon remembering that indeed there is one available and proceeds to promptly fetch one for me from behind the front desk and offers me a copy to which I enthusiastically accept.

I return from whence I came and to my delight find my food awaiting me and proceed to "dig in" and down my meal eager to explore the remainder of the complex. The sandwich is good but not spectacular. I wash it down with my orange juice, pay my bill while leaving Jessica a generous tip and then head out onto the verdant interior courtyard replete with tranquil koi ponds whose quietude is interrupted only by sounds of the gurgling stream feeding the ponds and the occasional voices of nearby guests and staff. From time to time the rich aroma of hydrogen sulphide gas from the grounds' hot mineral springs that feed its mineral baths manifesting itself as that now all-too-familar "rotten egg" smell we locals have oft smelt downtown Paso Robles since the 2003 San Simeon Earthquake reaches my nose grabbing my geology-minded attention and reminding me that down below me are hot rocks and below them not too many miles down is molten magma.

Ahead of me is the smallish 300 Building looking funky with its two stories, brick facade, and visually pleasing interaction with the adjacent trees and shrubs. In front of it and adjacent to the driveway that loops through this property is a large sign under a pine tree that reads "PASO ROBLES INN WEATHER STATION". Below that it reads as follows:


As I walk westward past the koi ponds and the 300 Building I encounter the similar-looking two-story 400 Building just beyond it on the right and as I continue across the large tree-shaded inner courtyard I encounter successive similar-looking buildings with successively higher numbers, ergo 500, 600, 700 and then buildings wrap around the west and south sides of the courtyard looping back towards the main 100 Building wherein I had just been with 800, 900, 1000, and 1100 numberings.

In regards to the latter building multiple employees who elect to remain anonymous state that the front desk periodically receives a phone call from Room 1107 when nobody is staying in the room and no staff are present in it and no voice is ever heard at the other end of the line.

When I reach the rear of the courtyard I turn right and make my way through a short hallway passage and break out into a rear parking area across which commandingly sits the 1200 Building (the aforementioned ballroom building) which is the oldest structure on the site having been the only significant structure to survive the flames of the night of December 13, 1940, and it's deadly aftermath. That cold winter night the night clerk upon realizing the grand building was on fire ran from room to room throughout the complex successfully warning all the guests to get out which they all did only to himself drop dead of a heart attack upon returning to the hotel lobby. The 1200 Building contains a spacious classic foyer replete with a simple and rustic period chandelier, grand piano, grand staircase, and inn desk with mail slots for guest rooms. It also features an elevator that is a more recent addition to the facility. However, the majority of this floor is occupied by the ballroom which many employees, nearly all of whom request to remain anonymous, claim is the haunt of the figure of a little girl. The second story of this structure features a long hallway that accesses larger suites. This area used to contain more numerous smaller rooms but was remodeled since the Martin Family acquired this property in the 1990's.

As I enter the grand foyer I am immediately enraptured in a sensation of traveling back in time as the smell of some of the older furnishings and features cannot be drowned out by the odors all the remodeling of the place has emplaced here. The bygone-era elegance of this large foyer and the attendant counter and stairs and piano and display cases featuring old documents and photos and such all underlain by a carpet fitting for such a room overwhelm my senses and transport me back to several different historical periods all at once. Particularly notable to me is a framed document showing the history of the title of ownership of this property starting with the Spanish Occupation and then moving to the Mexican Period and then the 24 different owners during the American Period. Notable in that list are Petronillo Rios of Rios-Caledonia Adobe fame, Charles W. Dana, brother of "Two Years Before The Mast" author Richard Henry Dana, and Drury James, brother of outlaws Frank and Jesse James whom he helped hide and allowed to convalesce at the inn from gunshot wounds received during the course of their outlaw activities.

As I am reading this list I hear behind me through the open wooden doors to the adjacent ballroom a member of the staff working there suddenly exclaim "that was odd". I turn around and notice that some sort of function is being prepared for in the ballroom and there is a younger man and a middle-aged woman working there. I walk across the foyer and stop at the entry into the ballroom and gaze in awe at its retro grandeur. The ornate wood word on the ceiling and walls and the classic wood floors visuallly devour all the modern accoutrements of human activity like chairs and tables giving the impression the room is empty even when it is not. I watch the room and this duo for a time either being ignored or not noticed and drink in the vibe and must aroma of the room. I feel a presence here, but of what I know not, be it history or the projections of my mind or perhaps something more.

I turn face and head east towards the base of the stairs featuring massive carved wood railing and then make ascent up them taking three successive left turns and arrive on the second floor to find a long hallway heading off to my right. I make the turn and face west down a long run looking to the far end of this second-floor hallway. The period ceiling light fixtures create an odd illumination in this off-white-walled corridor giving a creepy glow to the passage that is an impossible mix of dim and bright which I just love. The wall mirror at the far end gives the illusion the hallway is even longer. The whole scene strikes me as wonderfully creepily reminiscent of the scene in the Stanley Kubrik version of The Shining when the little boy rounds a turn in such a corridor while riding his Big Wheel encounters twin little girls who invite him to play with them "forever and ever and ever". I take some photos of the view from this end and then traverse the full length of the passage and take some images at the far end and then return down the stairs to the foyer but not before snapping some more images of the foyer from the top of the first run of stairs looking towards the open doors to the ballroom which beckons.

I quietly walk to the open doors of the ballroom where I had been standing a short time earlier and the duo of staff members is still hard at work preparing the room for an event that features an American flag at a table plus a flag to some fraternal order. After standing in the doorway a few minutes surveying the scene the woman finally notices me and is startled which I note. I apologize and introduce myself and my business and ask if anything odd has happened there lately. She tells me that just a short time ago something rolled across the wood floor. She adds that she believes it was a marble and that some marbles had gotten loose in the room in recent days and this must have been one of them. She cannot explain why such a marble would  suddenly let loose of its own accord at the opposite end of the ballroom from where the duo had been working and unprompted by any human agency. This was the incident that prompted her to earlier exclaim "that was odd".

She then proceeds to tell me about the little girl sometimes seen in this room as well as an even creepier event that has occurred to her twice before and once to the young man working with her this day. Apparently, periodically the elevator in the foyer will suddenly and without prompting from any human agency rapidly descend significantly faster than normal from the second floor all the while making an unnerving shrieking/wailing noise all the way down and then jarringly open with nobody inside it and nobody upstairs having activated it. The young man tells me that he initially did not believe her account of this elevator phenomenon until it happened to him once. The duo is initially sheepish and reluctant to share these accounts but I assure them that I don't think they are crazy or being untruthful. Not wanting to keep them from their labors I thank them for their time and head out the door and wend my way through the foyer and head out blinking into the light of day to absorb what I have just experienced, vicarious as much of it was but having felt enough of the brooding spirit of the building to feel compelled to come back at night and thus I do.

I walk from my house down silent empty streets to the Paso Robles Inn as a Winter storm sweeps onto the Central Coast at the midnight hour. The air is damp but rain is yet a few hours away and only gentle breezes blow upon my face. The glow of the lights of Paso Robles illuminate the bottom surface of the storm clouds above giving everything an unnatural nighttime glow even where there are no streetlights. The white neon Paso Robles Inn sign as well as the red neon VACANCY sign both seem to gleam with a seemingly unusually intense brilliance. To my right is the 200 Building better known as the Jesse James Building built to replace the Annex Building which was red-tagged as a result of the San Simeon Quake in 2003. Tonight it appears to be mostly empty which is not unusual during the tourism off-season of the Dead of Winter. I snap some photos of the neon signage for my blog and notice a dark specter observing me from between two columns at the north end of the 100 Building which contains the hotel front desk and office. The specter approaches me and I realize my presence is being challenged by the night watchman. He is courteous but as inquisitive of me as I am of the Little Girl in the ballroom who likes to play with marbles and people's nerves. I state my purpose and he informs me I should come back during the daylight hours when much more staff is on hand to observe as there is only himself and the night clerk present on the grounds at night.

However, before sending me away he generously invites me to check out the foyer in Building 1200 and gives me a little more history than I had previously unearthed. He turns out to be quite knowledgeable about the place and its secrets including the fact that there were/are many tunnels leading out of the inn property which head in many directions. These were, amongst other purposes, means of escape for the James Brothers back in their day. Most of these have been filled in he claims but to this day some may well not be entirely filled in which intrigues me and I wonder if any such subterranean passages wend their way below my abode three blocks north.

I thank him for his time and walk off the property and head north on Spring Street which now has begun to be raked by fairly significant wind gusts causing a cacophony of rattling leaves and litter and other light debris caught up in the wind skittering along the pavement. Not a soul is around and I am alone, a perfect reenactment of the frightening and haunting recurring dreams I oft experienced as a child of being alone at night in a city environment. However, this time I am utterly unafraid and feel like the master of my environment, the hunter of history and seeker of ghosts both metaphorical and metaphysical. I reflect upon what I have learned about the old girl and what she has whispered like sweet-nothings into my ear as I confidently stroll down the street energized by the buzz of my new love affair with the Paso Robles Inn. As with any woman she is complicated and inscrutable but fascinating and alluring and seductively shows off just enough of what is below the outer clothing of paint and landscaping and remodeling and more recent add-ons to be utterly irresistible to me. I know that I am not alone as many whom I encountered the past several days have clearly been besotted by her as well. The Paso Robles Inn is a nexus connecting numerous time periods in California history permitting them to find unity while trapping history's ghosts there.

Be sure to also check out Paso Robles Inn Photo Study I and Electricity In The Air Tonight At Paso Robles Inn and Picture of the Day - Paso Robles Inn Haunts and Picture of the Day - Paso Robles Inn Coffee Shop.


  1. Excellent piece, Kimmer. You need to sell it to a magazine. It's that good. *nods head yes*

  2. Ah shucks... I am unworthy of such praise... and who'd buy the article anyway?

    1. Please get someone to edit your offerings (written word) and also to check the historic value of your references. Please cite the sources of your findings.

    2. Unknown Knucklehead,

      This was an essay and as such did not and does not require sources cited. Most of the historic details are to be found on-sight or are simply known around here as common knowledge. I don't cite common knowledge. This "offering" was edited so apparently you aren't as knowledgeable about the grammar of your own language as you believe you are.

  3. Can I just say? Yikes! You're about as British as I am. What a crock of crap! Just be yourself and stop the facade. The spelling errors alone should keep this thing off the internet. Just one little thing to say I got your number. (But there are SO many!) Koi is NOT spelled "coy". Geesh, really? Don't you have spell check? I lived in Paso Robles and worked at the Paso Robles Inn. So did my daughter, daughter in law, cousins and the list goes on. Next time you're going to do a piece on a historic landmark at least talk to people who really know about it. Not the minimum wage employees at the coffee shop and try to fluff up your language like you're something special. My family goes back about ninety years in Paso Robles. Ask real people. You're funny..............

    1. Unknown Knucklehead,

      By Jove the only one of us who is British here is you apparently and in your case it shows most unfavorably. I dare say today I'm glad we rebelled. Between the two of us it is only you who bears a facade, one of obnoxiously pretentious pomposity and feigned sophistication and glibness. You are a tiny little know-nothing person who needs to feel larger by way of putting down other people. An intelligent person with character and class might have either said nothing at all or simply sent a private message amicably pointing out the one valid spelling error (coy/koi) which slipped passed me as a result of my being a human being and occasionally making spelling errors in my haste. Quite fortunately, I have obnoxious apparently British brats like you to find those errors and make a big to-do about them so that I won't likely make those particular spelling errors ever again. Cheerio!