Neither a castle nor Scotty’s, Death Valley Ranch, more commonly known as “Scotty’s Castle” was built by Albert Johnson, an insurance broker from Chicago. Johnson was lured to Death Valley by promises of a (fraudulent) gold mine investment with one Walter Scott, known as “Death Valley Scotty”. His wife’s insistence on him staying for his health kept him there.
Scotty, born in Kentucky and once a member of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, is best described by Richard E. Lingenfelter: “Death Valley Scotty was a ham actor, a conscienceless con man, an almost pathological liar, and a charismatic bullslinger. For all his ruby faced bluster and bravo, he had a ready smile, a colorful gift of gab, and a ingratiating manner that disarmed even his sharpest critics. But behind the engaging showman could be sensed a furtiveness in his steel blue eyes, and a tension that sometimes set his jaw to granite. He was an insatiable attention seeker, a reckless publicity hound, willing to say or do anything for one more moment in the limelight.”
Tired of their modest cabin, the Johnsons began building the Castle - Albert’s dream home, Bessie’s desert retreat, and Scotty’s con-man hide out. Construction boomed and busted with the economic swing from the Roaring 20s to the Depression 30’s. Johnson began construction in 1922, investing $1.4 million dollars in to the project. While the castle was under construction, he agreed to act as Scotty’s “banker”, and Scotty in turn told potential investors from the city that he was building a $2 million dollar home funded by his gold mine – the same fraudulent gold mine he had conned Johnson into investing in.
However this con came up short with the abrupt end of the Roaring 20s in 1929’s stock market crash. President Hoover created the Death Valley National Monument in 1930, encompassing the land Johnson was building on but did not own. Johnson’s insurance company went belly-up in 1933. Although Johnson was eventually able to buy the land under his castle, he was unable to complete its construction.
The Johnsons retired to Hollywood, visiting the castle from time to time. With them came hoards of tourists who flocked to the castle-turned-hotel in hopes of catching a glimpse of the famed “Death Valley Scotty”. Upon his death, Johnson willed the castle to the Gospel Foundation, who later sold it to the Death Valley National Park in 1970 for $850,000. “Death Valley Scotty” remains near “his” castle, watching from his burial site on the hillside above it.
Today, Scotty’s Castle is still a tourist destination in the Death Valley National Park. Visitors can climb around and explore the still unfinished castle or take guided tours, underground tours, and on special occasions enjoy a murder mystery night at the castle.
Update 2018: The “Thousand Year Flood” in Death Valley deposited four feet of mud in Scotty’s Castle. As such, this is currently closed until estimated 2020 (according to National Park Service).
Know Before You Go
4 miles from the Nevada entrance to Death Valley National Park on Hwy 267.