Monday, September 10, 2007
When you first see Scotty’s Castle on the edge of Death Valley, you almost feel like rubbing your eyes to make sure it’s not a desert mirage.
Built in the early 1920s as a vacation home by a wealthy insurance magnate named Albert M. Johnson, the castle might best be described as a smaller version of the famous Hearst’s Castle. Like Hearst’s mansion, Johnson’s castle is filled with antiques and exquisite architectural features.
The story behind Scotty’s Castle is intriguing. Just after the turn of the century, a colorful miner named Walter E. Scott—or “Death Valley Scotty”—who had spent many years prospecting in the Rhyolite-Death Valley area, befriended Albert Johnson.
Stories indicate that Scotty suggested Grapevine Canyon as the site for Johnson’s vacation castle. The location had water and a commanding view of Death Valley. Soon, a massive multi-story Spanish-style stucco and tile mansion was built on the desert’s edge.
Albert Johnson spared no expense in building his castle. Elaborate turrets rise above the dozens of rooms in the compound. Inside, he filled the place with rustic, handmade southwestern furniture, wall hangings and other accents.
During nine years of construction—the castle cost between $1.5 and $2 million in 1920s dollars—Johnson incorporated a few advanced design features. For instance, there is a ceiling to floor waterfall in the front room. In addition to its aesthetic qualities, the purpose of the waterfall is to help cool the house, which was built before the invention of air-conditioning systems.
Additionally, Albert Johnson experimented with a series of fans blowing air across large ice blocks into an underground vent system —an early attempt at air-conditioning—as well as with a crude version of a solar heating system.
When the complex was completed, Johnson and his wife named it the Death Valley Ranch. Albert Johnson, however, had a mischievous streak. Since Death Valley Scotty was a frequent guest, the two would often tell people that Scotty was the owner and Johnson was simply a visitor.
Within a short time, most people referred to the complex as “Scotty’s Castle” rather than its real name (in fact, most folks believed that Scotty was the owner and had built it from his mining earnings).
By the late 1920s, the castle had become a haven for America’s celebrities, with the Johnsons and their official “host,” Scotty, entertaining many of the world’s richest and most famous people.
The castle was never completed because Albert Johnson’s fortune was diminished as a result of financial losses he experienced during the Great Depression in the 1930s.
After Johnson’s death in 1948, Scotty was allowed to live at the ranch for the remainder of his life. He died in 1954.
Following Mrs. Johnson’s death, the massive home was bequeathed to a religious organization, which opened it for tours during the 1950s and 60s. In 1970, the U.S. government acquired the property and incorporated it into Death Valley National Park.
Today, park rangers offer daily guided tours. At several points, you encounter park service staff dressed as famous visitors from the 1920s and 30s, like director Cecil B. DeMille, who act in character to tell you about the place and their personal experiences with the Johnsons and Death Valley Scotty.
You will also see the large multi-car garage, complete with a vintage 1920s auto. It’s easy to imagine it filled with a half dozen or more large vehicles owned by the stars who were frequent guests, such as humorist Will Rogers.
Another special treat is the room housing Mrs. Johnson’s massive pipe organ. The organ, now automated to play dozens of tunes, fills an entire wall of the room.
Adjacent to the main house, visitors will also see a partially built swimming pool as well as a large tower, also not finished, which was to house a power plant for the complex.
Scotty’s Castle is located about an hour northwest of Beatty, Nevada via U.S. Highway 95 and State Route 267. The castle is operated by the National Park Service, which offers daily tours and publishes an excellent map brochure about Death Valley and Scotty’s Castle.
For more information, contact the Superintendent, Death Valley National Park, Death Valley, CA 92328, 760-786-2331.