Let’s face it—finding unique accommdations during road trips is one of the most frustrating things about travel. Do you want luxury, charm, history, location, or all of the above?
Vickie Lillo recently had the pleasure of staying in the famed Missouri hotel and enjoyed an incredible time exploring the historic lodging. From paranormal activity, mobster-era prohibition intrigue and even a Midwestern tribute to the Roman Baths, it certainly is a unique place to stay. Check out her tips for exploring The Elms Hotel!
History of the Elms Hotel in Excelsior Springs
Location, location, location.
For The Elms Hotel, an opulent and fabulously-iconic hotel in Excelsior Springs, Missouri, this motto of the real-estate world says it all. Currently sprawled on 16 acres of prime property, the historic resort sits on a wellspring of therapeutic mineral waters, in America’s heartland.
Throughout its storied history, The Elms Hotel has always been a trend-setter and playground for the affluent. For 125 years, its warmth and home-town appeal have attracted an impressive list of celebrities, politicians (Presidents Roosevelt and Truman), sports figures, and even outlaws.
Back in the 1880’s, during the days of pioneers and westward expansion, a gentleman named Travis Mellion had been told by local Native Americans and hunters that the area’s ‘natural springs’ had magical healing powers. So, he brought his daughter Opal, who had an incurable form of tuberculosis, here to bathe and drink the water. Within weeks, the girl showed signs of improvement and was eventually cured.
Legend of the springs’ healing capabilities spread through the Midwest like wildfire. Recognizing the potential of this phenomenon, landowner Anthony Wyman and visiting pastor John Van Buren Flack developed the area, forming the current-day town of Excelsior Springs.
With advertisement flaunting the restorative effects of the water, visitors flocked to the valley. In a single year, 200 houses sprung up, alongside encampments and covered wagons.
Fast forward to 1888, when the first Elms accommodation was built on a 50-acre site. A multi-storied hotel with wrap-around verandas, an enormous heated pool, four-lane bowling alley, target range and billiards room, the resort catered to rich guests from all across the country.
A full orchestra provided entertainment at its lavish parties and grand galas. Unfortunately, on May 9, 1898, The Elms was destroyed by fire from an overturned candle in the ballroom. Luckily, there were no fatalities.
Restored to its original splendor, the hotel had its 2nd Grand Opening on July 31, 1909, with 300 new guestrooms. Sadly, little more than a year later, due to a boiler-room malfunction, the resort fell victim to fire once more. Still, without casualties.
Akin to a cat with nine lives, The Elms was able to re-incarnate itself yet a third time in September 7, 1912. Rising from the ashes like a wraith – constructed this go-round of naturally fire-retardant Missouri limestone, steel frames and re-enforced concrete.
The hulking fabrication was built out of thousands of pieces of quarried rock, differing sizes of windows, and aesthetically-pleasing gables. The rebuilt hotel was surrounded by towering trees, and reached by a sprawling avenue landscaped with bushes, flowers, and burbling fountains.
High above the edifice, in white stand-out block lettering, emblazoned its moniker, THE ELMS. An American flag waved alongside the impressive hotel.
During the roaring 1920’s, both the town of Excelsior Springs and the hotel thrived as a national health destination. But the Great Depression struck and, alongside many other fancy establishments whose prosperous patrons had lost their fortunes in the Crash of ’29, the hotel filed for bankruptcy.
New owners in the’30’s rescued The Elms from insolvency, metamorphosing the resort into a vacation retreat/health spa for the well-to-do. The new management brought in varied clientele, including some unsavory characters, from both sides of the law.
Guests could explore the property on private thoroughbred trails…chase foxes, on-foot or on-horseback, accompanied by hounds…gather for bridge tournaments on the porch…or relax with cocktails and cigarettes in a lounge serviced by an in-house band.
Al Capone’s Occasional Retreat
For Alphonse Gabriel “Al” Capone, better known as Scarface, the ideal ‘location’ at his frequent gambling/bootlegging hideaway meant room #214, a cozy suite above the lobby, overlooking the hotel’s entrance. It was positioned perfectly to see all three of the adjoining streets.
During the days of Prohibition, it was essential to know who might be approaching. With a temperance movement fueling a nationwide ban on alcohol from 1920-1933, supported by the 18th amendment to the Constitution, illicit establishments – or ‘speakeasys’- proliferated throughout the U.S., offering libations to their customers, in flagrant defiance to the teetotaler regime.
Nearby Kansas City (30 miles west) was considered a ‘wide open town’, promoting every type of vice imaginable under then crime kingpin “Big City” Tom Pendergrast. It didn’t require much stretch of the imagination to envision Capone and his mobster cronies ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd and Bugsy Moran hosting unlawful betting games and arranging “bathtub gin” parties on the premises. It’s also rumored that Capone frequented Hilltop Manor in Hot Springs, AR.
Since gin was the booze of choice after the turn of the century, clandestine breweries sprouted everywhere, producing homemade ‘hooch’ under amateur conditions. Metal bathtubs filled with ice were used to ‘distill’ inexpensive grain alcohol and assorted flavorings/agents – like juniper berry juice and glycerin – into ‘moonshine’.
The gangster eventually ran a ‘crooked’ liquor-smuggling operation out of his favored hotel. It was even rumored that the racketeer had escape tunnels, behind the Truman Boardroom, which emptied out behind the police station, in case of a constabulary raid.
In the basement, where the European lap pool was situated, according to Jay Fanning, ghost-tour guide and unofficial Elms Hotel historian, Capone’s lackeys would fill empty water bottles labeled ‘Excelsior Springs’ with the hand-crafted brew and ship them out. Anything to circumvent the alcohol ban.
The demand for abstinence from firewater affected citizens from all walks of life and social circles. Once, while the town Mayor, the state Governor and Senator were imbibing their illicit ‘spirits’ in the hotel’s staterooms, the police attempted to interrupt their little ‘cocktail party’ at The Elms; whereupon, they were promptly told by the Governor to ‘go out and bust someone who was really breaking the law’.
Harry Truman’s 1948 Victory Night
For Harry S. Truman, The Elms became the ‘location’ of his November 2, 1948 victory night, when the incumbent president secretly sneaked off from his Independence home, accompanied by six secret-service agents, to escape the stress of the Democratic campaign headquarters in Kansas City. The ever-optimistic Truman had already predicted triumph over Thomas Dewey to his staff. His entourage occupied the entire west wing of the second floor, while Harry settled into the Presidential suite in what is now Room #300.
Truman took advantage of The Elms’ soothing spa facilities via a salt rub, mineral water bath and a massage, gobbled a ham-and-cheese sandwich, and went to bed at 9:00, with instructions to wake him if ‘anything significant happened’. Secret Service agents roused him at 4:00 a.m., after spending the night listening to the election returns, with radio reports of his impending win.
“We’ve got ‘em beat,” the U.S. Chief told them. That morning he became the 33rd President of the United States.
Other famous celebrities also found The Elms a location to their liking: a camp for boxer Jack Dempsey, where he and his sparring partners would swim at the lap pool before fights, and a summer sanctum for the 1948 New York Giants football players. President Roosevelt, Willie Nelson, even an incognito Brad Pitt have all sought refuge at the century-old hotel.
The Elms Hotel Haunted History
When you check-in at Reception in the massive lobby, Austin Hunter may ask, “Do you want an ‘active’ room?” Perhaps a chamber where the inexplicable happens – an orb of light or an apparition appears…lights blink on and off for no reason. Seems that uncanny spirits, too, have claimed this ‘location’, inside the world-renowned establishment, as their home.
“The hotel isn’t haunted because of the fires,” Kara Harrington, Director of Sales, assures my husband Gustavo and I. “The hauntings are due to sick people who stayed here, hoping to get relief from the healing waters.”
In 2014, Ghost Hunters came to The Elms to verify the hearsay was true. “And they DID find evidence of spirits,” Kara reveals.
“We don’t really promote that aspect of the hotel, but it’s an undeniable fact that we have spirits. And they come in all shapes, sizes, etc.”
She continues, “The overnight cleaner sees the most [supernatural] activity. Jay’ll be happy to tell you all about it on this evening’s ‘paranormal tour’.”
Indeed, Fanning takes us on a tramp through the most ‘psychic’ passageways inside the hotel: to the busiest Room, #425, where shadows linger, alarm clocks won’t shut off, and the door handle jiggles, from the inside. “The ghost was trying to get OUT, not in,” he confides.
In Room #438, women get their feet tickled, and in #347, people sleeping here have reported ‘scratches’ on their back from an invisible host. Furnishings in Room #352 flip upside down.
Once, VIPs found all of the furniture in the middle of the bed when they returned to their suite. We look for ghostly faces on the windows by the outdoor fire escapes, hoping to see their diaphanous countenances before they fade.
Over the years, numerous guests have reported the sound of a 5-year old boy – laughing – in the lap pool arena. According to Harrington, a child actually did die there.
“Whatever spirits are here are not trying to chase us away. They are trying to embrace us. “
Indeed, Jay is adamant about the unnatural happenings around the European lap pool, the only one of its kind in the United States. The pool is located at the site of one of the mineral wells, where the waters come up.
“I’ve never heard the boy, but I have seen unexplained ripples in the pool when absolutely no-one was around.” Undulations that traveled all the way around the swimming tank. “Paranormalists lose a lot of power down here in the basement.”
Having started working as a maintenance man, at night, Fanning admits he’s seen the lobby doors fly open unexpectedly. “Once, a long blond-haired woman [floated] by me in the Grand Ballroom.”
Lynnsey Jewett, a staff-member from the Spa, alleges, “I swear somebody was walking up from the Grotto – I could hear the footsteps. I was just getting ready to smile and greet them; but there wasn’t anybody there.”
Today’s Modern Hotel with Grotto (Roman bath)
Perhaps The Elms is best known for its strategic location as a romantic wedding venue, just a 45-minute drive from Kansas City. “For transient guests, it’s just a small road trip from Omaha, Lincoln, or St. Louis,” Kara Harrington notes, “Many corporate retreats are held here.”
The exquisitely-designed guest rooms, with their Victorian styling, are definitely the driver of The Elms’ claim to fame. Many conferences, events and banquets are held here like the huge Thanksgiving buffet that annually brings in 600 reservations, or the New Year’s Eve celebration which includes an overnight at the hotel.
Boomer Travel Tip
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Bountiful Sunday buffet brunches attract locals and tourists alike, as well as holiday meals on Easter and Mother’s Day.
Lastly, there’s the 25,000-square foot spa, one of the largest in the region. It was initially part of the July 1998 grand opening after an extensive $16 million renovation.
In late 2011 through early 2012, the resort once again closed to revamp. Stipulations prohibited much fixing-up of the exterior due to its listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
Most of the revitalization was done indoors, though all of the lobby’s tile was left intact. The mosaics comprised of thousands of minuscule squares imported from Italy are all hand-laid.
During the retrofit, guest rooms were refurbished and the 88 Restaurant added a lounge and secondary fireplace. A 24-hour fitness center was built along with the newest spa feature – the Grotto.
A fabulous on-site Roman-bath inspired sanctuary, emulates the public wash-houses of the Mediterranean. Bathers progress into a tepidarium (warm room), then a hot room (caldarium) of steam, and finally into the frigidarium (cold room) with its cool-water reservoir.
Frequently, these sweat and/or immersion rituals of the ancient Roman empire were followed by oil massages or a visit to the laconium (a dry, resting room) where the guest could languish in comfortable repose.
At today’s Grotto, both males and females together can begin their rejuvenation routine with a toasty, dry sauna, followed by a steam sauna, used to open the pores and fight off congestion. Eucalyptus-infused, the vapors are especially helpful for fending off colds.
Next, a good-sized hot tub beckons. Wellness-worshipers are then treated to a steamy shower for an all-over body exfoliation, that touts increased circulation, with the house-made scrub (a combination of salts – Epsom, Dead Sea, and Himalayan Pink – and rose petals).
Bathers can chill in the cold-plunge shower and afterwards, head back to an inviting chaise lounge, to unwind with – my personal favorite – an ice-packed washcloth soaked in peppermint oil draped across the face.
With an extensive menu of spa and salon services, and a gracious staff of over 60 practitioners, the Grotto experience attracts “over 200+ treatments a day, on the week-ends,” comments Hope Whitworth, Lead Therapist, and master of the hot-stone massage. For a $55 day-pass, non-guests and local residents can also come to the resort to partake in its luxurious spa.
Truly, The Elms is an exotic locale, once a stomping-ground reserved only for the rich and famous, steeped in a colorful history of Prohibition-era intrigue, with a few ghosts thrown in for good measure.
Disclosure* My husband and I were given a special rate for our suite at the Elms ($79/nite) and a 30% discount at the spa