Whenever you get someone talking about Death Valley National Park and what makes it so unique, they will usually end up asking about “That castle out there”. So what’s the story?
That castle “out there” is known as Scotty’s Castle (offically its known as the Death Valley Ranch) is a two-story Mission Revival and Spanish Colonial Revival style villa located in the Grapevine Mountains of northern Death Valley in Death Valley National Park, California. (map)
Scotty’s Castle is named for the gold prospector/Hustler Walter E. Scott, although Scott never owned it, nor is it an actual castle. He was the man who inspired its creation. His legend is also what made it the landmark that it is today.
The ranch is located about 45 miles north of Stovepipe Wells, California, via California State Route 190 to Scotty’s Castle Road, or about a three-hour drive from Las Vegas, Nevada.
Note: The property was severely damaged by flooding in October 2015 and is not currently open to the public.
Construction began on Scotty’s Castle in 1922, and cost between $1.5 and $2.5 million ($41M in 2021). Prospector, performer, and con man Walter Scott, born in Cynthiana, Kentucky, later known as “Death Valley Scotty,” convinced Chicago millionaire Albert Mussey Johnson to invest in Scott’s supposed gold mine in the Death Valley area.
Though initially angered when the mine turned out to be fraudulent, Johnson was fascinated with the colorful Scott and the two men struck up an unlikely friendship. By 1937, Johnson had acquired more than 1,500 acres (610 ha) in Grapevine Canyon, where the ranch is located.
After Johnson and his wife Bessie made several trips to the region, and claiming the dry air of Death Valley improved Mr Johnson’s health, construction began.
To Build a Castle
Tent living for any amount of time just wasn’t in Mrs Johnson’s vocabulary. So Bessie Johnson’s idea was to build something comfortable for their vacations in the area. So the villa eventually became their winter home.
Bessie wanted a real home built for them. Mr Johnson asked Scotty what kind of a home he shoudl build. Legend has it that Scotty, in previous career with the Wild Bill Hickcock Wild West Show, traveled Europe and Scotty fell in love with the castles of Europe. So thats what he thought they should build.
Unknown to the Johnsons, the initial survey was incorrect, and the land they built Death Valley Ranch on was actually government land; their land was farther up Grapevine Canyon. Construction halted as they resolved this mistake.
Once it was resolved, construction was not started back up due to the stock market crash in 1929, making it difficult for the Johnson’s to finish construction. Having lost a considerable amount of money, the Johnsons took an idea Scotty had to generate some income. They started to rent out the rooms to tourists passing through the valley.
The Johnsons died without heirs but had created the Gospel Foundation. A socially-oriented charity Johnson founded in 1946. The Johnsons had left the property to the charity with the understanding that Scott would be taken care of by the Gospel Foundation after the Johnson’s passing.
Scotty died in 1954 and was buried on the hill overlooking Scotty’s Castle next to a beloved dog.
The National Park Service purchased the villa for $850,000 from the Gospel Foundation.