Arts & Culture

Ghost stories from SLO County: The haunted Paso Robles Inn

The original Paso Robles Inn burned down in 1940 and was replaced by a new building two years later.
The original Paso Robles Inn burned down in 1940 and was replaced by a new building two years later.

This story originally appeared in The Tribune on Feb. 7, 2001:

When the calls come, it's usually after dark, and always from room 1007.

The phone at the front desk of the Paso Robles Inn rings, and when the clerk picks it up, there's no one at the other end.

The phantom calls have happened several times over the past few weeks, according to hotel management. Each time staff members have gone to investigate, there's been no one in the room.

At least, that's how the story goes as employees of the Paso Robles Inn relate what they say are the doings of a ghost they think might be haunting their hotel.

At first, inn management wrote the calls off to a phone system glitch. Then, they started joking that it might be a spirit doing the calling, with front desk clerks making log entries to the effect -- "The ghost in 1007 called me again."

When 1007 called 911 Thursday night, the ghost tale really took off.

When police arrived that night, the room, which requires an electronic key to open, was again found empty. To dial 911 from the inn's rooms, callers have to hit 8 and 0 before 911, said General Manager Paul Wallace.

"That's not a glitch, " Wallace said. "That's not someone (just) dialing 0."

After rereading a San Francisco Examiner article about the 1940 fire that destroyed the original hotel, Wallace began to theorize about who the ghost caller might be.

According to the article, night clerk J.H. Emsley discovered the fire on the second floor of the hotel on Dec. 19, 1940. Emsley rushed downstairs to the first floor, sounded the alarm, then died of a heart attack on the spot.

Wallace said the Thursday 911 call went out close to 9:05 p.m., the time Emsley sounded the alarm the night of the fire. Police records show the 911 call came in closer to 9:30, but Wallace stands by his theory.

Thanks to Emsley, all of the hotel's guests were evacuated safely. But Wallace said he thinks the ghostly clerk doesn't know that.

"I think it's unfinished business, " Wallace said. "He has no idea that the 200 guests were escorted out safely."

Police are skeptical about the ghost theory.

Paso Robles Police Officer Terry Johnson said the police department receives a number of mysterious 911 calls, some even from addresses that don't have a phone in operation.

"That is not the only place we've gotten an inexplicable 911 call, " Johnson said.

The number of phantom calls picks up during stormy weather, Johnson said. However, the weather was clear the night of the call from the inn.

Wallace called Pacific Bell that day, but the company found nothing wrong with the hotel's phone line. A contractor inspected the inside phone system, but also found no glitches, Wallace said.

Pac Bell spokeswoman Heather Alexander said the phone calls seem to be out of the ordinary.

"We really have no indication that what's being described is what's actually occurred ... although it certainly sounds unusual, " Alexander said.

Mike Childs, head of maintenance, isn't sure what to make of the phone mystery. Childs went to room 1007 to inspect the phone line the evening of the 911 call. The phone had called the front desk several times that day, and Childs went to see if there was a mechanical reason for the malfunction. While standing in the room, Childs witnessed the phone light up and call the front desk.

When he tried calling the desk himself, the phone -- which has two lines -- cut him off and called the front desk on the second line.

When the clerk picked up the call, all she heard was a squelching sound on the other end, Childs said.

"It (was) an odd kind of sound that she hadn't heard before, " he said. "It's bizarre."

The phone spirit isn't the first ghost story to haunt the inn. A cook is rumored to have quit two days into his job after encountering a woman wandering the courtyard. When the cook approached her, the woman reportedly disappeared before his eyes.

Ghosts or no ghosts, the inn has no shortage of lore attached to it.

The original hotel was built in 1890 by famed architect Stanford White, who designed Madison Square Garden and the Boston Public Library. With spire-like chimneys, the inn resembled a castle and attracted rich and famous visitors. It was rumored to be a favorite haunt of legendary outlaw Jesse James.

Just like the Titanic, the brick hotel was supposed to be indestructible, Wallace said. But a cigarette tossed down a laundry or garbage chute started the blaze that brought about the original hotel's end. Only the ballroom was left standing, and the rest of the inn was rebuilt in 1945.

Local businessman Tom Martin bought the inn in 1999, and added several new rooms to the hotel last year, including 1007.

The calls to the front desk started in mid-January, just after the first event was held in the newly renovated ballroom, Wallace said.

Wallace said he has no idea why the ghost chose room 1007, which rents for $175 per night. But he noted that the facade of the new wing was built with bricks from the original hotel. Maybe they somehow carried Emsley's spirit with them, he said.

Or maybe it's the room's prime view of the hotel courtyard and its posh hot springs tub.

"If I was a ghost, this is the room I'd pick, " Wallace said.