Monday, September 10, 2007

Scotty's Castle

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.


prepossessing said...

My husband and I will be in DVNP in 2 weeks from today! We are looking forward to it. Thank you for your posting. I wasn't sure if I wanted to see Scotty's Castle, and now I'm sure I will.

The Backyard Traveler said...

I think you'll enjoy it.


KellyOKeefe said...

One item left out of your story is the role of Mollie Flagg Magee Knudtsen (1915-2001) in preserving not only Stokes Castle but as well a good deal of Austin. Below is her obituary from 2001. Her books on Central Nevada history and geology are must reads and her contributions to her adopted state are innumerable. The Knudtsen Resource Center at the University of Nevada - Reno memorializes her contributions to higher education and she was one of the grande dames of Nevada. It was my privilege to have known her and it was the people of the State of Nevada who benefited from her keen intellect, perseverance, and love affair with the Great Basin and its history.

Molly Flagg Knudtsen (1915-2001), ranch owner near Austin, Nev.; member of the Board of Regents for 18 years, 1960-1972 and 1974-1980. Born in New York, Mrs. Knudtsen came to Nevada in 1942; wrote about central Nevada ranches in her book "Here is Our Valley"; and had her work published in several journals under the name of Molly Magee.

Story by: University Communications, UNR


Molly Knudtsen, a former Regent who represented rural Nevada for two decades, died July 24 in Reno after an extended illness. She was 85 years old.

“We have lost a great friend of higher education and a truly remarkable woman,” said Regent Dorothy Gallagher of Elko. “I’ve known Molly for more than 35 years as a friend, an outstanding rancher and an individual dedicated to the state of Nevada. She will be missed.”

Knudtsen is survived by son William Flagg Magee, daughter-in-law Sally Wheeler Magee, grandsons William Wheeler Magee and Dean Flagg Magee, all of Dallas, Texas; and husband William Knudtsen of Oregon.

Private internment will be in Mountain View Cemetery in Reno. Memorial services will be held at 10 a.m., Aug. 15, in the Nightingale Hall of the Church Fine Arts Building at the University of Nevada, Reno, and at 4 p.m. on Aug. 16 at the Trinity Episcopal Church in Reno. For further information on the memorial services or donations to the University of Nevada in Mrs. Knudsten’s name, please call the University of Nevada, Reno Foundation at (775) 784-1587. Donations can be mailed to the Foundation at Mail Stop 162, University of Nevada, Reno, 89557. Specify whether funds are to be donated to the Department of Anthropology or the College of Agriculture.

Born Sept. 15, 1915 in New York City, Molly Flagg was privately tutored and attended Foxcroft School in Virginia and Kings’ College, University of London. She made her formal debut in 1933 in New York City and the following spring was presented at the Court of St. James in London.

Flagg came to the Silver State in 1941 and raced horses in Nevada, California and the Midwest until 1942. That year, she married Richard (Dick) Magee, of Grass Valley, Nev. Magee owned the Grass Valley Ranch where he raised thoroughbred racehorses, and she developed herds of purebred Herefords.

Molly Magee was active in historic preservation activities in Austin, especially churches, and the local landmark Stokes Castle, which she purchased as a means of saving it. She actively pursued archaeological studies in the Grass Valley area through her own research and publications and by encouraging research projects by the University of Nevada and the University of California, Berkeley. Through a grant to the Desert Research Institute, she founded the Nevada Archaeological Survey in 1968, a joint program of the university system and the Nevada State Museum.

Magee was elected to the Board of Regents in 1960 and served until 1980. During her time with the board, she served two terms as the vice chair. She played many key roles in the development of the university system, especially in the founding of the Desert Research Institute, the University of Nevada, Reno Anthropology Department, expansion of the College of Agriculture and the University of Nevada Press and development of the Nevada community colleges.

In 1979, the Knudtsen Resource Center on the Nevada campus was named in Molly Knudtsen’s honor. She was awarded an honorary doctorate in anthropology in 1975 from Nevada and a Distinguished Nevadan Award in 1994 from the Board of Regents.

The Magees were divorced in 1969 and Molly bought Grass Valley Ranch from Dick Magee. She later married Bill Knudtsen, and with his assistance continued to operate the ranch until she suffered a near-fatal horse accident in 1987. During a long recovery, she oversaw the ranch by long-distance from Reno, but sold the cattle herds in 1994 and the ranch in 1995. Her registered Hereford bulls were well known and purchased by ranches throughout the West and Midwest.

Knudtsen was a member of the Nevada State Museum Board of Trustees in the late 1960s, and served for many years as Advisor to the College of Agriculture and on various Bureau of Land Management advisory boards, and spoke actively on environmental issues. She published a wide variety of books, articles and poems about Nevada history and archaeology, Grass Valley, and numerous other topics.

KellyOKeefe said...

Never mind.

Barbara Tronowsky said...

I remember visiting Scotty's Castle as a child. My great uncle, Victor Johnson was good friend with Walter Scott. When Scotty passed away my uncle drove Scotty's casket in the back of his station wagon up to the grave site. My mother played the organ at the "Castle". I think it is time to revisit.