CERCA: Some guests never leave old Tucson haunt

Being awakened by noisy fellow guests during a hotel stay is nothing new. But how about when those guests long ago checked out of this life?

Dara Oseran is the manager of the historic — and some say haunted — Hotel Congress in Tucson, Ariz.

“Salena (the desk clerk) had a woman this morning who was irate with her because she had been awakened early this morning by a ghost at the foot of her bed,” Oseran recounted recently.

The Hotel Congress, built in 1919 in downtown Tucson, has had many guests over the years, including John Dillinger’s gang. The outlaws’ stay was cut short by a fire that ultimately led to their capture in 1934.

Oseran, the daughter of the hotel’s owners, grew up there and, though she’s never seen a ghost, has heard enough accounts to make her a believer.

“I am sure it is haunted,” said Oseran, who’s in her mid-20s. “But our ghosts are not bad. They are friendly.”

I might be among the skeptics, too, if not for two visits to the hotel.

While purportedly haunted places draw their share of curiosity seekers, that’s not what brought me to the Hotel Congress, at least initially. I chose it practically at random because its rates were reasonable and it was right across the street from the Amtrak station where I was to meet my sister Jackie.

What I sensed and saw on that summer venture — unexplained noises in an empty hallway and flickering lights — made me realize the Hotel Congress was no ordinary place and that I wanted to visit again.

The building looked intriguing in an online photo, just as it does in person. The turn-of-the-century appearance, complete with draped awnings over the windows, makes you feel you’re stepping back in time.

The 40 vintage rooms still have rotary phones and only radios. A 1930s-era safe and old-time switchboard add to the hotel’s authentic feel.

In March, I flew to Phoenix from Las Vegas, with an itinerary that included a return trip to the Hotel Congress. Tucson is roughly a two-hour drive from Phoenix.

My friend Jim accompanied me on the day trip. Along the desert drive, I thought back to my introduction to the Hotel Congress a few summers ago.

Tucson smolders in the summer, and the hotel had yet to add air conditioning. But the hotel had enough other charms that I didn’t mind.

My room was right above Club Congress, a first-floor nightclub. (The hotel originally had three floors, but only two remain after the third floor burned in the ’34 fire.)

Rooms over the club include a complimentary set of earplugs. But I passed on them because I wanted to nap after the long trip and planned to use the sound of music emanating from below as my wake-up call so I could drop by when the club opened.

Unlike many Las Vegas nightclubs, Club Congress has a come-as-you-are dress code and no cover charge. A DJ or band plays there most nights, and the venue, opened in 1985, has been voted the best club in many annual Tucson polls.

The Tap Room bar also is open late. There you might see Tiger, a 90-something bartender who disavows any connection to scandal-plagued golfer Tiger Woods.

The bartender has, however, tangled memorably with at least one female, Oseran said. “Tiger got his name because he jumped over the bar to wrestle a woman once,” she said.

In 2009, Tiger celebrated a half-century tending bar at the Tap Room.

Something about the Hotel Congress seems to make people want to stay — sometimes for eternity, hotel workers say.

“One man got off the train in Tucson in 1950 and stayed at the Hotel Congress for the rest of his life,” Oseran said of a permanent resident who passed away in 2001. “He used to always fix things using our butter knives as screwdrivers, because he didn’t want to bother maintenance. We still find butter knives all over the hotel.”

Today, the deceased man’s room, 220, is among those believed to be haunted. “The walls in his room cry, from condensation,” Oseran said. “That’s the only room that does that.”

On my recent visit, chief of housekeeping Elena Mendez took me to Room 216, where the door shuts on its own and seems to do so without any gravitational effect.

We also visited Room 242, the site of the tragic and untimely death of a female hotel resident in 1996. I took pictures of the simple, 1930s-style single-bed room.

Everything went fine until Mendez started down the hall to show me another room and I stayed behind to snap a few extra photos. Those pictures turned out all black except for an illuminated image in the center. I hadn’t changed the settings on my camera and couldn’t figure out what was wrong.

After stepping out in the hallway, I was able to take pictures without trouble. Later, Mendez accompanied me back to the deceased woman’s room. With the hotel employee present, my photos turned out fine.

Perhaps, I thought, the spirit said to inhabit Room 242 just wanted to make sure I had permission to take photos in her room.

One lasting impression, literally, from my original stay at Hotel Congress was an image seared in aged wood on the inside of the door of one room. The wood had discolored to create a silhouette of a woman’s face.

I don’t recall the room number, but the hotel staff told me at the time that a woman had died in that room. On my return visit, I saw that the doors had been repainted.

Oseran is not surprised later when I recount some of my unusual experiences at the hotel, such as the strange images on my camera and my missing notebook appearing in a room that I had never visited.

“My sister saw three ghosts,” she said.

The spirit guests are multiplying, Oseran suspects.

“There’s a little girl that runs through the downstairs hallway, a man who lives in the lobby, a woman that lives on the stairs, a man who sits on the bed in Room 216 and looks out the window, the woman in 242, the man in 220 who died in 2001,” she said.

The hotel manager thinks she knows some of them, but not all.

“We buy antique furniture, and sometimes people — ghosts — attach themselves to furniture,” Oseran speculated. “I don’t know if all of them were guests at the hotel or not.”

The Dillinger gang members were definitely hotel guests, and the 1934 blaze smoked them out.

One gang member bribed a Tucson fireman to go back into the hotel and retrieve their bags, which were full of guns and money, Oseran said during a hotel tour.

Later on, while reading a detective magazine, the fireman figured out he had helped the Dillinger gang. That eventually resulted in Dillinger’s capture at a nearby house by the tiny Tucson police force.

“Dillinger was captured without a shot being fired,” Oseran said. “And he said, ‘Well, I’ll be damned.’ ”

His capture in Tucson is re-enacted each year for Dillinger Days at Hotel Congress in January.

Though the place now has air conditioning, not much else about the Hotel Congress has changed during the past 99 years, including some of its occupants.

As much as the historic hotel has to offer, Oseran conceded that some folks just aren’t comfortable hanging out with ghosts while listening to rock music.

“The Hotel Congress,” she said, “is not for everyone.”

Contact Cerca contributor Valerie Miller at, or (702) 387-5286.

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