Route 66 News

Owner of El Rancho Hotel in Gallup dies

Armand Ortega Sr., 86, savior of the historic El Rancho Hotel in Gallup, New Mexico, when it faced the wrecking ball during the 1980s, died Wednesday.

An employee at the hotel said Ortega had been in failing health for about a year. His funeral was today at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Gallup, with burial at Sunset Cemetery.

Ortega Family Enterprises, based in Santa Fe, owns several concessions in national parks, Native American-themed gift shops and restaurants in the Southwest, as well as El Rancho.

But Ortega was especially fond of El Rancho, which was opened in 1937 by R.E. “Griff” Griffith, brother of the famed movie director D.W. Griffith. The Griffiths encouraged filmmakers to shoot movies in the Gallup area, and the hotel benefited by having a bevy of stars — including John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Errol Flynn, Kirk Douglas, Gregory Peck and Humphrey Bogart — stay at the hotel during productions up to the 1960s.

The hotel started to decline, especially when Interstate 40 bypassed Route 66 in 1980. But Ortega, who always dreamed of owning El Rancho, bought it in 1986 after it went into bankruptcy and was threatened with demolition. According to an Associated Press story in 1989, Ortega bought the property for $500,000 and spent another $500,000 restoring it. It was reopened in May 1988 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places that year.

Clair Gurley, a salesman who was the hotel’s first guest when it opened in 1937, was invited back to the hotel after it was renovated and charged the original $5-a-night price.

An obituary in the Gallup Independent newspaper (subscription only) said Ortega could be found almost daily in the hotel’s restaurant, drinking coffee while chatting with tourists or buying crafts from Native Americans who lived in the region.

According to an obituary supplied by Rollie Mortuary in Gallup:

Ortega got his start in business selling newspapers and leading a team of shoeshine boys at the age of 10. In his youth he worked for his father at Indian Trails Trading Post in Lupton, Arizona. He graduated from Holbrook High School in 1946, where he played basketball and the trumpet. In 1952, he opened his first store in Deming. He worked to promote Indian Jewelry throughout the U.S. and he was the first Indian Arts and Crafts dealer to market and distribute throughout the United States.

Ortega was born in Holbrook. He eventually opened a slew of businesses in New Mexico and Arizona, including the Indian Ruins Trading Post in Sanders, Arizona, and the Hopi House near Flagstaff.

(Images of El Rancho Hotel by el-toro and Larry Lamsa via Flickr)


8 thoughts on “Owner of El Rancho Hotel in Gallup dies

  1. Jim Conkle

    Armand’s daughter has been running the hotel for the last few years. Armand only came in mid day for an hour or so to have coffee and check out the gift shop His great talent was in buying native jewelry to resell in the gift shop.
    I last saw him in May of this year and he looked tried and frail. Yet his mind seemed to be working as he remembered me.
    The hotel, restaurant and bar have a solid place in the history and future of Route 66.
    Go there at Christmas time to see the tree and decorations.

  2. salparadise

    I met Mr. Ortega in 1997 at the El Rancho dining room while I was staying there on a trip back from Anaheim, California. I had read about him in the first major Route 66 books, and knew about his role in saving the El Rancho. What few know is that Katharine Hepburn had a memoir of the El Rancho in her house in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. I was an Indian blanket she was given as a gift when she stayed there. I saw it when I worked at a boatyard in the area and we went to return her small dingy after we bottom painted it. So, there is some connection there.

    I really believe Mr. Ortega to a real, legit connection to Route 66. His efforts with the El Rancho were an act of faith more than an investment. He really loved the place, it gave him happy memories of his youth and his love of the Indian trading business. His bringing back El Rancho was a major, probably the important, single event in the comeback of Route 66. The hotel is an anchor on the road, a place which reaches back to the legit old days. So many of the things passing for Route 66 legacy aren’t much. Many are not even old. Most are bogus, and created for current consumption. What Mr. Ortega did was invest in something. There was no ‘remember 66’ tourist business back in the 80’s. There were no local drives to promote it, or new 66 museums or visitor centers. El Rancho is a real, real connection to the hey day of Route 66.

    El Rancho was one of the first things that attracted me to Route 66. I first saw it in 1976 on a trip to California, and traffic was rerouted into Gallup as I40 was still under construction in many places. We didn’t stay because it was still early in the day, and we had been stuck in Albuquerque with a broken down car for 3 days and needed to make time. But we did stop and looked around. It was quite a sight. And it still is.

    Thanks to Mr. Ortega.

  3. Gary "Bear" Fleshman

    My sincerest condolences to Mr. Ortega’s family, friends and employees. I’ve known Armand for over a decade, and have been bringing tour groups to stay at the El Rancho for a long time. I would regularly see him at the hotel in the evenings having dinner, or just checking in on how things were going. He was always happy to see me and welcomed me warmly. I am sad to hear of his passing and he will be in my thoughts every time I come to the El Rancho with future tour groups.
    Thank you Mr. Ortega, for your kind hospitality, friendship and dedication to preserving the history of the El Rancho and it’s place on Route 66. You will be missed.

  4. Lloyd Kermet Lewis

    I used to play music in the old El Rancho Bar and dance hall. I played there with Doc Holliday in the 60’s, Lawrence Ford and Larry Hendrix, and a plethora of other bands. Great place to play.

  5. Denise Puente

    My grandmother and her siblings grew up with Mr. Ortega in Holbrook. I had always heard his name in my home as he was considered a very dear friend by my family. Two summers ago I was on a cross country road trip and made it a point to stop and meet this man I only knew through the memories of others.
    I was nervous walking into the El Rancho afraid he would think I was a silly stranger or worse not be there at all. After explaining who I was he took me in like family or an old friend. We had lunch and he recounted so many tales of himself and my grandmother. We laughed and cried and laughed some more. What a joy that visit was to me. I knew that day would probably be the first and last time I would ever see him. I’m so glad I stopped.

  6. Clark Lynch

    I too played music and lived at The El Rancho with Doc Holliday from December 1971 thru June 1972, I’m Clark Lynch.

    Would anyone have any photos from that period of the Hoyel or Sign that showed Doc Holliday? Willie Nelson came in one night and played a set with us. He and Doc were close friends.. Any photos would be great for my memories there.

  7. Kathrine M. Douthit

    Thank you all so much for sharing these stories. I got to meet Mr. Ortega for a brief moment in his last year — as a total stranger but a big fan. I love El Rancho and hope it thrives on for years to come. El Rancho and Gallup have inspired many drawings and paintings for me and they continue to feed my imagination. I’m so grateful for sites like this and personal accounts. I envy you all for your memories.

  8. Esther Montoya Burch

    Thanks for the memories cousin Armand and Marie who we called Uncle and Auntie out of respect. We were at The El Rancho on the 29th of September and I found out my cousin Denny Ortega passed away also. I am so sad. Rest In Peace. Uncle Armand I know my Mama is making you tortillas and chili. Love Always Esther Montoya.. Daughter of Eddie and Pita Montoya.
    Turquoise sidewalks in Heaven.
    Thank You for playing the organ Uncle Armand, Ed and I loved it.
    Forever in my heart

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: