Scotty’s Castle: Gold Mine Scam Leads to True Friendship in Death Valley

Scotty's Castle, Death Valley National Park
Scotty’s Castle, Death Valley National Park

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. That is the case of Scotty’s Castle, a historic house museum in Death Valley. The tale is both true and false at the same time. In fact, one of the few true statements comprising this story is that it really is located in Death Valley.

Walter Scott, aka Death Valley Scotty, had been a rough-rider with the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show for 12 years. During the off seasons, he would come back to Death Valley for odd jobs. He already knew the area very well since his days as a water boy with a survey team. He left the Wild West Show in 1902 and tried his hand at gold prospecting.

Scotty told people he had staked a claim to a wonderful gold mine. He convinced some wealthy businessmen to put up the money so he could extract this fortune and, in return, they’d get a share of all the profits. At this point, the story begins to take a strange twist.

In order to be a successful prospector, it would seem necessary to actually find gold. A few years passed and the wealthy partners started thinking this was a scam. They hadn’t received anything in return for their investment so they pulled out—all of them, except one. Meanwhile, Scotty was living as if money were no object. He stayed in the most expensive hotels and was a frequent customer in the finest saloons in California and Nevada.

The one remaining partner was Chicago millionaire Albert Mussey Johnson who had made his fortune in investment finance. His successes included the Arkansas Midland Railroad, the National Life Insurance Company, and the North American Cold Storage Company. He also hadn’t seen any results from his financial agreement with Scotty so he decided to pay a visit to Death Valley. While there, the two men developed a friendship that lasted the rest of their lives. Johnson’s health improved in the hot, dry climate prompting him to buy property he named the Death Valley Ranch. He built Scotty’s Castle as the vacation home for himself and his wife. Before Johnson’s death, he made provisions for Scotty to live out his days in the castle.

The timeline depicts the 1920s and 30s, with rugged and expensive furnishings. The story revolves around the unlikely friendship between a millionaire, his wife, and the man who claimed a questionable or nonexistent gold mine. The house was named after someone who never owned it and was built with money that did not come from striking gold. Scotty’s Castle is located in Death Valley National Park which is part of the National Park Service. The castle will be closed from July 15 – August 9, 2013, for park maintenance. For information on available tours and necessary precautions due to weather, please visit the website.

Cynthia Collins, Senior Museum Correspondent

Scotty’s Castle, Death Valley National Park

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