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Gadsden Hotel Echoes With Ghostly Pancho Villa Tales : Wild West: Arizona landmark is laden with artifacts including reputed memento of Mexican revolutionary.

July 23, 1995|ARTHUR H. ROTSTEIN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

DOUGLAS, Ariz. — Gadsden Hotel manager Robin Brekhus knows exactly when she saw the ghost.

It was 4:10 p.m. Friday, March 13, 1991. The power had failed and she was in the basement, searching for candles.

In the beam of her flashlight, she saw a faceless figure shaped like a man.

"He just kind of floated down the hallway," she said. "It just looked like fog to me, but it was the shape of a person."

The ghost is part of what draws people to this border town and its hotel which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Older residents while away afternoons in the dim lobby that once served as headquarters for cattle and copper barons.

Business people from Agua Prieta, Mexico, breakfast in the coffee shop.

Locals rub shoulders with tourists in the bar decorated with more than 200 cattle brands from the United States and Mexico.

From the manually operated elevator, to the 42-foot-wide Tiffany murals of Sonoran Desert scenes, to the chip in the grand staircase supposedly gouged by Pancho Villa's horse, the Gadsden Hotel exudes southern Arizona history.

For years, hotel workers and guests have told of seeing an apparition, often around Lent and often in the hotel's cavernous basement. Sometimes it's described as headless, caped and wearing Army-style khaki clothing.

Elevator operator Carmen Diaz saw it in the basement.

"Tall man. Black pantsuit. No head," she said.

Brenda Maley, restaurant supervisor for the hotel, said she saw the shadow of a body hunched over her one night as she lay on her stomach in bed in her hotel room. It happened just after a sensation that "all of a sudden I couldn't move."

A movie crew member told Brekhus his light turned on and off in the middle of the night, "and then his golf clubs went crashing down onto the floor."

One woman said she felt someone get into her bed. When she started to turn she felt the weight lift off the bed, only to curl around her when she rolled over.

Built in 1907, the hotel was leveled by fire and rebuilt in 1929. It nearly died again a decade ago, that time a victim of neglect.

The hotel was rescued in 1988 by North Dakota wheat farmers Doris and Hartman Brekhus.

"If it wasn't for the Brekhuses, this place would have closed down," said Frank Bruno, a Douglas native whose family once operated a competing hotel a few blocks away.

The blocky, five-story tower looms over this town in Arizona's obscure southeastern corner, a picture of faded elegance. Rooms go for $32 a night to $85 for the Governor's Suite.

The Brekhuses had wintered in Douglas since the 1940s, including 18 seasons in the Gadsden. Their daughter-in-law is manager.

The elder Mrs. Brekhus said money is generally plowed back as it comes in, "and we gradually upgrade it."

The 150-room Gadsden still looks worn, but its exterior warmth has been restored. After years as a drab light green, the outside is buff and brown again.

Peeling paint shows in a corner of the lobby, and water damage is evident near one of two vaulted, stained-glass skylights.

The lobby, with its brown tile floor and Italian marble columns, is little changed from photos taken when it reopened 66 years ago after the fire.

Deep leather sofas draw town residents to the lobby that Brekhus calls "the town's living room."

Mike Gomez is a regular for breakfast in the main dining room.

"Every day we solve all the problems of the world," Gomez said.

The Ocotillo Club, a women's group, has met there monthly since the 1930s.

Carmen Diaz is in her 24th year operating the manual elevator--one of the Otis Elevator Co.'s oldest west of the Mississippi.

A 1929 manual telephone switchboard still sits behind the front desk, though it isn't used anymore. It was the first of its kind in the state, according to the Arizona Historical Society.

The hotel is named for James Gadsden, who in 1853 negotiated the $10-million purchase from Mexico of 29,670 square miles that became parts of southern Arizona and New Mexico.

Douglas was headquarters for the mining enterprise that became the Phelps Dodge Co., a Fortune 500 company.

Nearly every Arizona governor has stayed in the Governor's Suite.

So did First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Purists question the tale of Pancho Villa's impromptu horseback ride up the stairs, noting that the Mexican revolutionary was assassinated in 1923, six years before the new hotel opened. Robin Brekhus points to newspaper accounts that indicate the marble stairs survived the fire.

Raymond and Yvonne Liner of Bakersfield, Calif., returned in April to Room 231, where they stayed on their honeymoon 50 years ago. They wrote:

"The room looked exactly the same to us. Only we, the occupants, had 50 years' worth of wrinkles."

Michael and Anne Patrick of Halifax, Nova Scotia, who videotaped the lobby after reading of the Gadsden in a travel guide, were awe-struck at first sight.

"It's quite spectacular," Michael Patrick said. "Here in the outback of Arizona. It must have been quite the thing in its heyday, wasn't it? It still is, I guess."

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