This incongruous place is located in a remote area of the California (Mojave) desert, in the northern part of Death Valley National Park. Though officially it was called the Death Valley Ranch, it’s better known as Scotty’s Castle. This post is about a friendship between two men as improbable as a castle in the desert. I think when you really consider unlikely pairings real truths are often revealed. These pairings can tell larger stories and illuminate the motivations behind the often-strange behavior of human beings.
Despite the name, Scotty’s Castle never belonged to Scotty. Walter Scott (aka Death Valley Scotty) was a colorful character who lived from 1872 to 1954. He worked for Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show for some time, then tried gold mining near Cripple Creek Colorado. That would be the extent of his working life, as he spent most of the rest of it convincing rich easterners to invest money in fictitious gold mines out west.
Scotty’s last and best benefactor was a Chigagoan named Albert Johnson. When Johnson was a young man he was fascinated with the west. While young he made a lot of money investing in a mine in Missouri, and he planned to invest in mines out west. He wanted a life there. But a broken back from a bad train accident (which killed his father) changed his life. He was temporarily paralyzed and made a miraculous recovery. But his health was never the same and he was forced to settle on a career in the insurance industry.
Perhaps it was inevitable that Johnson would fall in the sights of Walter Scott. After Johnson had invested some thousands of money into Scott’s secret (and fictitious) Death Valley gold mine with no return, he became suspicious. It was soon apparent that Scott was lying. Strangely, despite all the evidence he was being conned, Johnson remained convinced of the mine.
It took quite a number of years and several visits before Johnson finally gave up on the secret mine’s existence. Through all of this Scott tried to deceive him with several elaborate schemes. This included (of course) the salting of various fake mines, but Scott was not one to stop there. He once planted a group of friends in a canyon masquerading as outlaws. They surprised Johnson, Scott and their companions and a fake gunfight (but with real bullets!) ensued. The ruse was meant to scare away Johnson and his associates in hopes they might forget about seeing the mine with their own eyes. But the plan quickly went awry when one man was shot and seriously injured.
Scott had learned the art of Wild West theater from the best (Buffalo Bill) and he used that flair for the dramatic in his long career as a con man. He had a certain boldness. His colorful personality made him a media star in fact. He made it into newspapers nationwide on several occasions. And he parlayed that fame into a number of gigs (including a play about himself, starring himself).
Albert Johnson, though a genuinely rich insurance executive, was enchanted with Scotty in the same way he was enchanted with the mythical wild west. Perhaps Johnson saw his alter ego, the embodiment of a life he wished he had lived. Of course it was all based on false premises. The era when the Wild West was real overlaps with the succeeding (longer) era when the concept of the wild west was parodied and used to fire the imaginations of sedate city-goers from “civilized” America – for profit.
Incredibly, Johnson eventually forgave Scott for defrauding him and the two became good friends. You would not expect a man to befriend a man who had conned him out of money, but that’s exactly what happened. Johnson and Scott genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. Scott was known as an entertaining storyteller. All of this might explain why Johnson believed in Scotty’s secret mine for so long, and why he later forgave him.
His early dreams of an adventurous life out west ruined by his devastating injury, Johnson made repeated trips back, particularly to Death Valley. Trains made some places in the west at least as accessible (in some cases more so) than they are now. In 1915 Johnson bought and developed an old ranch in Grapevine Canyon. Though Johnson was content to rough it on his visits, his wife Bessie convinced him to build a vacation home. And Johnson did not go halfway! Both he and Bessie loved the peace and quiet of the desert. As for Scotty, he lived his later years five miles from the the Castle in a cabin built for him by Johnson.
Though Scotty’s Castle was never quite finished, it remains a stunning place. It was originally run on direct current electricity from a Pelton water wheel powered from the same spring that supplied water. Johnson did much of the original engineering himself. The National Park Service purchased the place years after Johnson’s died. It is nicely preserved and rangers dressed in period costume lead daily tours.
In the picture you can see a cross on the hill overlooking Scotty’s Castle. This is the grave site of Walter Scott. He is buried right alongside a beloved dog. I think this little fact alone might explain why I have a charitable opinion of a man who lied and cheated for most of his life.