One of the quirkier historic structures in the park system is a luxurious unfinished mansion named after a Wild West con man. Last week, the National Park Service released hundreds of historic pictures of this unusual desert vacation home and the curious people who once lived in it.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Wild West cowboy Walter Scott, who went by the nickname Scotty, started a rumor that he owned a gold mine so lucrative, he was building a giant mansion on top of it. The story was fiction, but it had a seed of truth to it. His fancy home was actually built on a foundation of lies between two friends — and both somehow ended up richer for it.
Scott was born in Kentucky in 1872 and ran away to Nevada at age 11, spending time in the Death Valley region decades before it became a national park. He worked a series of odd jobs, including a 12-year stint as a stunt rider in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, beginning at age 16. In 1900, he stopped performing and ostensibly turned his focus to searching for gold — but his prospecting skills paled in comparison to his horsemanship. He was much better suited to running a scam than a mine, and in the years that followed, he swindled multiple wealthy businessmen out of thousands of dollars by convincing them to invest in his fictitious schemes.
One of those businessmen was the Chicago-based millionaire Albert Johnson, a deeply religious man who was president of a major life insurance company. Johnson had successfully invested in a lead and zinc mine early in his career and continued to seek new ventures.
In his travels across the country looking for investment opportunities, Johnson was involved in a tragic train crash that killed his father and left him with a serious spinal injury. Doctors did not expect him to survive, yet over time, he made an astounding recovery, though he would continue to suffer effects from his injury for the rest of his life. When Johnson met one of Scott’s associates in 1904, he was walking again, with a limp, and continuing to look for opportunities to build his immense wealth. He agreed to hand over $2,500 — roughly $75,000 in today’s dollars — to the associate in exchange for a percentage of the profits from Scott’s fictitious Death Valley mine.
By 1906, Johnson was keenly aware that Scott hadn’t sent any of the profits he’d promised. Johnson began making regular trips to Death Valley in an attempt to see the gold mine Scott had described. Scott evaded Johnson and attempted to lead him astray on these visits, and Johnson likely realized fairly quickly that he’d been fooled. Yet he continued to make regular trips to Death Valley, because — as many enthusiasts can understand — he fell in love with the vast, colorful landscape, and the warm, dry climate felt healing to him. It turns out, he also really enjoyed Scott’s company.
Johnson began traveling with his wife Bessie on his visits to Death Valley. She eventually complained about sleeping in canvas tents among the scorpions and snakes, and he purchased land for an immense, luxurious vacation home. He started construction in 1922 on a Spanish- and Mediterranean-style villa with a swimming pool, a bell tower with carillon chimes, elaborate tile work and interiors — and a room just for Scott.
As the mansion was being constructed, Scott began claiming that he was the one building the elaborate villa, and that he had sited it on top of his mine using the lucrative profits from his gold. When questioned, Johnson reportedly went along with the farce, claiming to be Scott’s banker. Things came to a halt in 1931, however, when a surveying error forced Johnson to stop construction. In the years that followed, Johnson lost most of his fortune during the Great Depression, and the building has remained incomplete ever since, though it still stands, as it has for decades, as an unusual, lavish spectacle in a harsh desert environment.
Scott lived in the villa until his death in 1954, and his body is buried nearby. Though he did not finance or own the structure, it is still known as “Scotty’s Castle.”
The National Park Service acquired the historic villa in 1970, and it is now part of Death Valley National Park. Unfortunately, the castle has been closed to visitors since 2015, when a rare flash flood damaged the building. Compounding the disaster, just last month, a fire destroyed one of the historic outbuildings at the site, though the main house remained undamaged. The castle is not expected to reopen for tours until at least 2022.
Last week, however, the Park Service released a series of historic photographs showing the elaborate construction process and the curious people who were involved in this unusual desert venture. Learn more about this intriguing part of Death Valley’s history and enjoy a look back in time with the Scotty’s Castle Historic Photograph Collection.
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About the author
Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications
Jennifer writes, edits and moderates online content for NPCA.