A spirited hotel

Alex Johnson has been dead for 80 years. But when I lived in Rapid City, a decade ago, he was believed to ride the elevator in the hotel that bears his name.

The elevator was quirky back then, opening at floors when no button had been pushed for that stop. Hotel employees told me it was just Alex, playing a prank.

He also was credited with other unusual actions, and the staffers said it was just the original owner, making sure his landmark hotel was running to his satisfaction.

Alex Carlton Johnson was a Chicago & North Western Railway vice president, a driven man who rose from humble roots in Pennsylvania, according to a wonderfully detailed 1991 South Dakota State Historical Society story based on his hand-written memoirs. Johnson came to Dakota Territory in the 1880s with little money but a big desire to succeed.

He did so, becoming a successful businessman who was active in Republican Party politics. His primary interest was in railroads, and he made his name and fortune there.

After living in Minnesota and California, he came back to South Dakota to build the Hotel Alex Johnson, starting construction on Aug. 19, 1927, the day before work started on Mount Rushmore.

The hotel, which locals call “The Alex” or “ The AJ,” opened in 1928 and in 1931, Johnson began to spend a good part of each year in the penthouse suite, writing his memoirs and making himself at home in his namesake hotel. He died in 1938, but according to staff, never checked out.

When I lived in Rapid City, I became friendly with Jim Didier, whose family owned the hotel from 1984-2008. I visited virtually every corner of the place.

In October 2005, I spent a night in two of the eighth floor rooms with the most haunting reputations, Rooms 802 and 812. I paid for one room and was given the key to the other, and I went back and forth searching for spirits.

Nothing much happened, although I felt a definite unease in Room 812, where, according to the legend, a young woman had jumped to her death to the street below in the 1970s, either on her wedding or the night before the ceremony.

It’s said her spirit, clad in all white, roams the eighth-floor hallway at night. I never glimpsed her in my night on the floor, or in other visits there.

Jim told me that the legends were true.

“I believe it now, especially after staying there. I did stay in every single room on the eighth floor,” he said a decade ago. “There are spirits there, multiple spirits.”

The hotel was featured in the classic film “North by Northwest,” where it was referred to as “the Sheraton-Johnson in Rapid City, South Dakota,” by master spy James Mason, who had that fictional but still amazing home behind Mount Rushmore. The Sheraton hotel chain owned the hotel and put its name first from 1956-65, before the original name was restored.

Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense, directed “North by Northwest,” which starred Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, Martin Landau and Mason. The scenes shot in the Black HIlls, including, Jim Didier insisted, one in front of the Alex Johnson, were done in August and September 1958.

Jim said Hitchcock needed a scene supposedly set earlier in the movie, and used the Hotel Alex Johnson as a backdrop instead. Considering he created stages to depict the Black Hills National Forest and Mount Rushmore itself -- those weren’t the real faces that Grant and Saint raced across, you know -- maybe Jim was right. There are scenes in front of a hotel that perhaps were filmed in downtown Rapid City.

Like Alex himself, Hitchcock, Grant, Landau, and Mason have all shuffled off this mortal coil. There are no reports of any of them making a return visit to the Rapid City hotel, but I am sure some ghost hunters will keep looking for them.

While they search for spirits, perhaps Alex will be kind enough to operate the elevator for them.

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