San Antonio’s Menger Hotel: Historic and Haunted

History lives at San Antonio’s famous Menger Hotel, and if you can believe the legends, so do numerous ghosts. 

Bearing the title of the oldest continuously-operating hotel west of the Mississippi. the Menger’s story began in 1840 when twenty-year-old German Immigrant William Menger arrived in San Antonio and started the Western Brewery—Texas’ very first brewery—built on part of the site where the battle of the Alamo had occurred four years before. Menger moved into Mary Guenther’s boarding house next to the brewery and ultimately convinced the proprietress to marry him.

By the late 1850s, the Mengers recognized the need for a hotel to serve their successful brewery’s many customers. So, in 1859, the Menger Hotel, a two-story, cut-stone building of classical design, opened its doors replacing the boarding house. A tunnel between the hotel and brewery was created so hotel guests could tour the brewery and sample the beer. The hotel met with such quick success that three months after the grand opening, Menger started planning a three-story, 49-room addition. Menger also constructed an underground cellar with three foot thick stone walls for cooling the beer. During the Civil War, business was slow and Menger opened the hotel as a temporary, makeshift hospital for sick and wounded soldiers. Although Menger died in 1871, his wife and son continued operation of the brewery and the hotel. 

Ten years later, in 1881, Major J.H. Kampmann purchased the Menger and assumed management of the hotel, expanding the number of rooms and adding a cherry-wood bar designed after the Club Taproom pub in London’s House of Lords. The Menger’s version consisted of a two-story bar room, a billiard room, and a reading room. Elegance prevailed with french mirrors, gold-plated spittoons, and mint juleps in solid silver tumblers. Beer was chilled by the Alamo Madre ditch which ran through the hotel courtyard.

Over the years, additional additions and improvements were made—from an ornamental marquee to the Colonial Dining Room, famous for its wild game, mango ice cream, and turtle soup—actually made from turtles caught in the San Antonio River.  Today, after 163 years, the historic Menger is part of San Antonio’s “Alamo Master Plan,” an exciting renovation of the entire Alamo site and its surrounding area, including the Menger Hotel.

Scores of famous guests have visited the hotel, from Robert E. Lee to Ulysses S. Grant, actresses Sarah Bernhard and Mae West, Oscar Wilde, Babe Ruth, eleven American Presidents, and foreign royalty. One of the more unusual guests was a 750-pound alligator left behind by a guest who skipped on his hotel bill. Hotel management appropriately named the alligator “Bill” and kept him in the atrium. But no worries, this was over 100 years ago and Bill is long gone.  

Theodore Roosevelt stayed in the hotel while on a javelina hunt in 1892. He returned in 1898 to recruit machete-carrying Rough Riders for his First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry one of the most famous fighting units in the Spanish-American War, praised for their role in the Battle of San Juan Hill.

According to Texas Legend, Teddy Roosevelt lingered at a table in the Menger bar to recruit cowboys returning from trail drives on the Chisholm Trail for his Rough Riders, signing them up on the spot and later drinking and carousing with his volunteers. While it’s true Roosevelt led his Rough Riders on the charge up Kettle Hill and San Juan Heights in Cuba, did he really charge up the Menger hotel’s main staircase on his horse named Little Texas? I can find no evidence that he did, but I’ve heard that story since childhood.

Ah, but I promised ghosts, didn’t I?  Let’s start with the ghost of—who else but Teddy Roosevelt—who is frequently seen and sometimes heard at the Menger’s bar. Reports are that he appears frequently and sometimes talks to staff in an attempt to recruit them for his Rough Riders.

Another ghostly guest at the hotel is the apparition of Sallie White, a nineteenth century chambermaid murdered by her husband. Reports of a ghostly Sally with her hands full of towels and sheets have been reported on the third floor of the original section of the hotel.  Guests have been shocked to see her walking through walls and closed doors. 

Cattle Baron Richard King, founder of the giant King Ranch enjoyed his own suite in the Menger in the 1800s. At the end of his life in the 1880s King requested to move to his private suite in the hotel and died there in 1885.  The hotel’s King Ranch Suite is the site of numerous sightings of Captain King’s apparition.

If you want an historic luxury hotel experience, The Menger Hotel in San Antonio awaits you and who knows, you might just get lucky and spot a friendly ghost! But don’t let Teddy Roosevelt talk you into joining the Rough Riders, the Spanish-American War is over.

This has been Laurie Moore-Moore with the Texas Brave and Strong podcast —tidbits of Texas history you never learned in school.  It’s the best little podcast in Texas.  Thanks for listening and be sure to check out my new novel, GONE TO DALLAS, The Storekeeper, 1856-1861.  Available on Amazon, B&N, Smashwords, and Ingram Sparks.

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