DEATH VALLEY, Calif. — In the middle of this vast desert is a castle built on a foundation of lies. Scotty’s Castle is proof that dishonesty can pay.
Perhaps no place in America is as infamous as Death Valley. Since its discovery by Western settlers, it’s been typecast as a scorched, rattlesnake-infested expanse of worthless desert. Truth being, it’s not such a bad place — especially if you have a nice castle over your head.
Walter “Scotty” Scott was a good-natured character who specialized in white lies and good times. With a line of bull that would land most folks in jail, Scotty talked his way into a $1.5 million mansion in the center of a parched patch of American neverneverland. Author Hank Johnson, in his book “Death Valley Scotty,” called him “the fastest con in the West.”
Scotty left his home in Kentucky in 1883 at age 11 to work as a cowboy. He worked many jobs, including one in Death Valley. In 1890 he joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, staying 12 years.
After that, he started bragging of a rich gold mine he supposedly owned in Death Valley. He asked one wealthy man after another to invest, promising he’d split the rewards.
Albert Mussey Johnson, a strait-laced millionaire insurance man in Chicago, bought into Scotty’s promise and poured in money. Scotty used it to live the good life.
In 1904, Johnson came West for the first time. Scotty showed his backer all around Death Valley, but never a gold mine. Johnson figured out Scotty’s scheme, but he was having such a good time and felt so good from the exercise, clean air, and from laughing at Scotty’s jokes that he went home happy. He kept sending money.
Eleven years later, Johnson began acquiring 1,200 spring-fed acres of property in Grapevine Canyon. In 1922 he started construction of Death Valley Ranch (now called Scotty’s Castle) so he could move to the desert for good. Construction continued until shortly after the stock market crash of 1929, when Johnson’s disposable income nose-dived.
Although Scotty didn’t build the castle, finance it, or even live in it except as a guest, it eventually became known as Scotty’s Castle, probably because Scotty kept bragging it was his — built from profits from his “hidden mine.” Johnson didn’t seem to care. “He repays me in laughs,” Johnson once said about Scotty.
Johnson died in 1948 and Scotty in 1954. The castle remains preserved in Death Valley National Park. About 100,000 people tour it each year.
On the 40-minute guided tour, rangers explain how the castle was built (material was hauled from the railroad 20 miles away), how electricity was generated (by a Pelton Wheel, which is still used today), and famous people who visited the castle (Will Rogers, Betty Grable and Norman Rockwell).
But the most interesting story is of Scotty and his relationship with Johnson and his wife Bessie. The men’s friendship is documented throughout the house. While there are no pictures of Johnson and Bessie together, there are plenty of Johnson and Scotty. The dinnerware is even embossed with the letters J and S — Johnson and Scott. Although Scotty lived in a cabin a few miles away, there was a guest room for him in the castle.
Death Valley Scotty is buried on the hill overlooking the castle. These words are on his grave marker: “I got few things to live by: Don’t say nothing that will hurt anybody. Don’t give advice — nobody will take it anyway. Don’t complain. Don’t explain.”
Scotty’s Castle is normally open year-round, but closed now due to flooding, which washed out parts of the road in and out. It’s scheduled to re-open in 2020, so put it on your bucket list of places to visit.