Castle in the Sand

Built on tall tales and desert dreams, Scotty's Castle in Death Valley is a monument to the power of good stories and lasting friendship.

By Jeff Rennicke

Mountain ranges that seem to float in a sea of shimmering heat waves, boulders that dance across a valley floor—nothing is as it seems in the desert, and Scotty’s Castle is no exception. Set on the northern edge of California’s Death Valley National Park, this ornate Spanish-Mediterranean structure isn’t a castle at all. Nor did it ever belong to anyone named Scotty. But the man for whom this place is named wasn’t one to let facts get in the way of a good story.

Born in Kentucky in 1872, Walter Scott left home at age 11 to try his luck on a ranch in Nevada. Skilled with horses and blessed with a flair for the dramatic, Scott became a stunt rider with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show at 16 and toured the United States and Europe for 12 years perfecting his showmanship. When he tried his hand at gold mining, first in Colorado and later in Death Valley, he discovered that a flashy style was of little use at the working end of a pick axe. The real gold wasn’t in the ground, Scott decided—it lay in mining the rich ore of people’s dreams. All a miner is, he once said, was “a damn liar with a hole in the ground.” From his years in showbiz, he knew how to lie and there were plenty of holes in the ground in a place like Death Valley. So Walter Scott became “Death Valley Scotty”—or, as one author put it, “the fastest con in the West.”

Spinning tales of lost gold mines and throwing money around like confetti, Scott bilked a wealthy Eastern businessman out of more than $5,000 to finance a supposed gold strike in Death Valley. When the man demanded proof, Scott boarded a train carrying a bag which he said contained $12,000 in gold dust. The bag was mysteriously “stolen” before Scott reached the city. Soon Scott’s antics had caught the eye of another deep pocket: Albert Johnson, of the National Life Insurance Company of Chicago.

With a degree in mining engineering from Cornell University in New York, Johnson was a conservative, deeply religious man, and no easy mark. He had made a fortune in zinc, but a train wreck broke his back when he was a young man and left him in frail health. Never able to live out the dreams of the Wild West prospector himself, Johnson was enthralled with Death Valley Scotty’s flamboyant stories, the long red ties that were his trademark, and his happy-go-lucky attitude. The two became unlikely friends. Johnson began advancing money to Scott as early as 1902. When he traveled to Death
Valley in 1905, Scott orchestrated a phony “ambush” meant to scare Johnson off. It didn’t matter—Albert Johnson knew there was no gold. But he found the desert climate rejuvenating and enjoyed the entertaining company of his friend. Those things were riches enough in his eyes.

In the early 1920s, Johnson began construction of a $2-million home in Grapevine Canyon. Scotty told reporters, “We’re building a Castle,” claiming that it was financed with profits from his fabled gold mine. Scotty would later send workers into the basement to rattle pipes, convincing guests that the mine was hidden under the house. Johnson played along, claiming to be “Scotty’s banker.”

The house itself is a monument to opulence: 32,000 square feet, two music rooms, a $50,000 pipe organ, a 500-pound chandelier, hand-made Italian tile, tapestries imported from Europe, and a fourteenth century Spanish chest in the guest room. No expense was spared in its finery, or its ingenuity. Faced with the challenge of creating comfort and convenience in the midst of Death Valley, Johnson installed a Pelton water motor to create electricity, used solar power to heat the water, and cooled the house with indoor waterfalls. “It’s impressive how much thinking Mr. Johnson did about adapting existing technologies for appropriate uses in this environment,” says Mike Wehmeyer, a Park Service volunteer who conducts tours of the home.

Scotty’s Castle attracted a steady stream of the rich and famous—among them Betty Grable, Will Rogers, and Norman Rockwell. Yet however glittery the guest list, Scotty remained the main attraction—hat tilted on his head, glint in his eye, always with a story ready to tell.

The economic crash of 1929 halted construction, leaving parts of the castle unfinished, including the 270-square-foot swimming pool. After his wife’s death in 1947, Johnson deeded the ranch to the Gospel Foundation with the provision that Scotty be allowed to stay on, which he did until his death in 1954. The Park Service purchased it for $850,000 in 1970 and now offers daily tours to more than 60,000 visitors a year. “Visitors come to Death Valley to enjoy the natural resources,” says park ranger Barry Oost, one of the living history tour guides at Scotty’s Castle, “and end up discovering this amazing story as well.”

To some, it is a story built on lies and tall tales. To others, it’s a story of an incredible friendship. “I know I’ve been paying his bills for years,” Albert Johnson once said of Scott, “but he pays me back in laughs.” In the final tally between the unlikely pair, it’s difficult to say just who came out ahead.

Jeff Rennicke teaches literature at Conserve School in Wisconsin’s North Woods.

This article appears in the Fall 2009 issue.

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