30 Years in 52 Weeks – Week 8 – Year 2

Scotty’s Castle, Death Valley National Park, CA

Scotty's Castle Link to slideshow

Scotty's Castle Death Valley

The history of Scotty’s Castle built during the California gold rush is as wild as some of the claims of the era.  Scotty’s Castle is located in the northern part of Death Valley National Park in California.

The castle was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for Chicago insurance magnate Albert Mussey Johnson (1872-1948) and his wife Bessie Penniman Johnson.

The lifelong friendship of Scotty and Mr. Johnson, two completely different men was improbable.  The Johnson’s were America’s fabled rich.  Mr. Johnson’s interest in mining and the desert began in 1905 when he explored Death Valley led by the ever-optimistic and boastful prospector  Walter E. Scott “Scotty” (1872-1954), known as Death Valley Scotty.

The couple had been fond of vacationing in Death Valley with their friend Scotty.  The Johnson’s dream castle was commissioned after Bessie commented that they build something more comfortable to get away from the rattlesnakes and scorpions.  Bessie had wants better than the canvas tents they had been staying in. Construction began on the Death Valley Ranch in the1920s.  By 1924, Johnson had acquired 1,500 acres along the northeast border of Death Valley.  That February, Johnson and Frank Lloyd Wright took an automobile excursion to the castle site. The ranch site began to take on some of the Spanish-Mediterranean design styling filled with hand-wrought iron and tile features.

Scotty was originally from Kentucky and ran away from home as a young boy and joined his brother on a ranch in the desert of Nevada.  After working odd jobs he eventually settled in Death Valley.  In 1890 Scotty was discovered by a talent scout for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show where he worked as a cowboy touring the world for 12 years.  He then found more fame and riches as a gold prospector, albeit some would say a shady one.

Scotty claimed he had a fabulous gold mine in Death Valley and convinced wealthy investors to buy stock in his mine.  The plan was to split all the profits after they gave money for equipment to extract the gold.  Scotty had no luck prospecting gold the next few years convincing his investors he was a con man.  They backed out of all their investments.  Undaunted, Scotty began appearing at the finest hotels and saloons in California and Nevada.  His spending sprees became legendary.  This was about the time Scotty met Mr. Johnson.  Their friendship captured the attention of the townsfolk.  Albert Johnson was a well-respected and highly religious  insurance magnate.  Scotty was known as a shady character with a rowdy nature.

Over the next few years Mr. Johnson gave thousands of dollars to Scotty to invest in a gold mine operation.  When the gold never appeared Mr. Johnson asked to see the gold mine in person.  Scotty took Mr. Johnson to Death Valley on a grueling horseback trip figuring he would give up the mission early on.  Instead, the often sickly city slicker Johnson (due to a nearly fatal train accident as a child) felt his health improve immensely in the dry desert climate and stayed a month.  He never saw the gold mine and he never cared.  He fell in love with Death Valley and that alone was like finding gold to him.

During construction of the Johnson ranch home, Scotty boasted that it was his home being built from the gold extracted from his gold mine.  When reporters asked Scotty if it was really his home, Mr. Johnson would play along and as joke that he was Scotty’s banker.  Johnson was being taken but didn’t seem to care, he was a friend of Scotty’s and liked hanging around and hearing his wild tales.  The name Scotty’s Castle stuck to this day.

In 1931 Mr. Johnson had to stop construction due to a survey error indicating he was building his dream house on federal land.  The house never again saw construction when The Great Depression set in.  Today the castle stands incomplete, but a reflection of the beautiful design that remained to be.

As the Depression was nearing an end, the Johnsons retired to Hollywood but would still vacation at the castle, which was now operating as a hotel and tourist attraction named after Death Valley Scotty.  When the Johnson’s passed away in the 1940s with no heirs, the castle was willed to a charitable organization which continued the tours and hotel operations.  Scotty lived in the castle the last two years of his life, passing away in 1954.  He is buried at the top of a hill over-looking the castle.  Scotty’s Castle was purchased by the National Park Service in 1970.  Admission is $11 for adults.

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