Scotty’s Castle is not a town or city, in fact it isn’t even Scotty’s Castle. It is actually the Death Valley Ranch, but you’ll be able to find “Scotty’s Castle” on most maps of California.
Scotty is prospector, performer and con man Walter Scott (“Death Valley Scotty”), who notoriously scammed several investors out of thousands of dollars by selling “grubstake” shares in fraudulent mines.
One of those investors was Chicago millionaire Albert Johnson, who having invested in Scott’s “secret underground mine” in the Grapevine Mountains of Death Valley, learned of Scott’s con man past and decided to pay a visit to see his investment for himself. On the first attempt to visit the goldmine, the train that Scott and Johnson were travelling on was attacked and the trip had to be abandoned (it was later learned that Scott had planned the assault himself). Eventually Johnson made it to Death Valley, and although he was initially outraged that he had invested in another of Scott’s fraudulent endeavours, Johnson was fascinated with the colourful con man, and the two struck up an unlikely friendship.
Johnson was not in the best of health having suffered serious injuries in a train crash that killed his father, and left Johnson with a chronically bad back. As the unlikely Johnson-Scott friendship grew, Johnson and his wife Bessie began making several trips to the area (usually camping), and the warm, dry desert climate was a tonic to Johnson’s poor health. His wife convinced him to build what started as a vacation property, and the villa eventually became their winter home.
Construction on the two-storey Spanish colonial style villa started in 1922, and Johnson spent somewhere between $2 and $2.5 million dollars on a spectacular dessert oasis that he sadly never completed.
Unknown to the Johnson’s, the initial survey was incorrect and they had built on what was actually Government land. Construction ground to a halt as they worked on a resolution to the mistake, but before it could be resolved, the stock market crashed in 1929, making it difficult for Johnson to finish construction. Having lost a fortune, they used Death Valley ranch as an income-generating property by renting rooms out, and allowing Scott to continue the ruse that their vacation home actually belonged to him and had been built with income from his “secret” mine.
In reality, Scott lived in a cabin in Lower Vine Ranch with no lights or electricity, but spent most of his time at the villa regaling guests with stories of his adventures.
In 1947-48, Bessie and Albert Johnson passed away without heirs and hoped that the National Park Service would purchase the property. In 1970, they finally did purchase it for $850,000 from the Gospel Foundation, to which the Johnson’s had left the property. Walter Scott, who was taken care of by the Gospel Foundation after the Johnson’s passing, died in 1954 at the age of 81, and was buried on the hill that overlooks Scotty’s Castle, next to his beloved dog, Windy.
On the day we visited, there was major road construction taking place, and what should have been a 5 minute drive up to the castle took 25 minutes in the middle of a “dust and dirt convoy” behind a site supervisor’s pick-up truck. I think I’m still coughing out Desert Valley dirt a good 3 weeks after our visit.
Visitors to the site are free to walk the grounds and take pictures of the outsides of all the buildings. There is a $15 ranger guided tour that will gain you access to the insides of the buildings. On this day we opted out because the guide who was on-site was a loud “blowhard” who was really full of himself, and neither Mary nor I were in the mood for putting up with him.
We satisfied ourselves with a walk around the grounds where we found rocks with petroglyphs on them (origins unknown), and had a chance to see the unfinished swimming pool that would have been truly spectacular if Johnson had not run out of money. Apparently all the pool tiles were purchased and paid for and are still in boxes to this day, stored underground at the villa.
After an hour on the grounds of Scotty’s Castle, it was time to hit the road again, as we still had another 24 miles of well-paved Desert Valley roads to negotiate to get to Titus Canyon, before we could turn east toward the Nevada border, and a stop at Rhyolite, a gold-rush ghost-town waiting for us to explore.