Hotel Congress would have continued its charming existence as just another place of lodging for road weary guests, were it not for the events of January 22, 1934. That fateful day changed forever the building and its unique place in Tucson history. Early in the morning, a fire started in the basement of the hotel and spread up the elevator to the third floor. This fire, and the subsequent chain of events, led to the capture of one of the country’s most notorious criminals – John Dillinger.
After a series of bank robberies, Dillinger and his gang came to Tucson to “lay low”, residing on the third floor under aliases. Using the switchboard, the front desk clerk notified hotel guests of the fire and guests were evacuated using aerial ladders. On the urgent request of the gang, and encouraged by a generous tip, two firemen retrieved the heavy luggage they left behind. It was later discovered that the bags contained a small arsenal and $23,816 in cash.
Later, these astute firemen recognized the gang in True Detective Magazine. A stakeout resulted in the capture of Dillinger at a house on North Second Avenue. In a space of five hours, without firing a single shot, the police of small town Tucson had done what the combined forces of several states and the FBI had failed to accomplish. When captured, Dillinger simply muttered, “Well, I’ll be damned”.
We still celebrate his capture each third weekend in January with Dillinger Days, which is a fun event featuring reenactments, food and music, tours and lectures.