Lawmen, gunslingers, gamblers, con men, cowboys and Indians, miners and explorers all played their part in painting the West’s colorful history. Certainly among these characters was Death Valley Scotty, possibly the most lovable and well-liked of any con man in history. In fact, he was so charismatic that a multi-million dollar mansion in the heart of the Mojave desert miles from anywhere still bears his name nearly a century after it was built, despite the fact that he never owned it and didn’t pay for its construction. But Scotty’s Castle was where he lived the last three decades of his life and is the location of his final resting place.
Walter Scott, better know as Death Valley Scotty, spent his last days entertaining by telling stories and getting laughs from the guests that stayed in the mansion he had called home for decades. And he had plenty of tales to tell. He had worked on a ranch, gone on cattle drives, worked in a borax mine, and worked for the railroads before joining Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show as a performer. That was all before his nineteenth birthday. He was also one of the all-time great self-promoters, a confidence man, and a swindler. After leaving the Wild West Show, he borrowed two samples of high-grade ore and took them to the East looking for investors, claiming the ore came from his own mine. He even tried the same trick several years later in San Francisco.
For his greatest con, he convinced Albert Johnson, a wealthy Chicago industrialist to invest in his mine. After several years, Johnson realized there was no mine, but by that time he had developed a friendship with Scotty that would last until the end of their lives. That friendship over time led to the creation of one of the truly unique places in the West, Scotty’s Castle.
Johnson had grown so fond of Death Valley and his yearly visits that over a period of a decade he had acquired 1,500 acres of land in Grapevine Canyon and in 1926 construction began on what would become an architectural masterpiece. The stock market crash in 1929 and Johnson’s substantial losses meant that Scotty’s Castle would never be completed to his original plans, but Johnson would speak of completing the project up until his death in 1948.
By the time of Johnson’s death, it had already become a tourist attraction with guests coming from all over to spend the night in the luxurious home. Not only had his Castle become a tourist attraction, Scotty himself had also been a draw that brought people to the middle of the desert to spend a night hearing him weave the stories of his adventurous life. That was how this intriguing man spent his final days until his death in 1954, when he was buried on a hill behind “his” castle. Until just recently, this curiosity had drawn many interested visitors to one of the most remote parts of the Mojave.
Sadly, only employees of Death Valley National Park will have the opportunity to see Scotty’s Castle in person for the next several years. Reading about it and looking at photos is the only way everyone else will be able to experience this historic treasure until at least 2019. That is because in October 2015 Grapevine Canyon was devastated by a flash flood that left miles of road washed out, more than a foot of mud and debris in the visitor center, and significant damage to the mansion. The damage was estimated at $29 million and will take years to repair, but when completed another visit to Scotty’s Castle will be worth the wait.
To find more interesting things to see near Scotty’s Castle, check out our post on Goldpoint, Nevada.
Death Valley National Park, California July 2013