Fire destroys Scotty’s Castle visitor center

fire at Scotty's castle death valley

National Park workers look over the remains of the garage at Scotty’s Castle (National Park Service)

We woke up Thursday morning to the tragic news that Death Valley lost another piece of its iconic history. The historic garage at Scotty’s Castle in Death Valley was destroyed by fire and a second building was damaged.

The historic landmark in Death Valley National Park has been closed for ongoing repair work after extensive flood damage in 2015.  The main building (the “castle”) was not damaged by the fire.  Ironically, the garage that was lost, which had been used as a visitor center, was the building most heavily damaged by the October 2015 flash flood.

 

Scotty's Castle Garage

The Garage/Visitor Center from a 2013 Tour

For anyone who knows me or follows this blog, you know what Death Valley means to me. I love the Park and everything in it.   As for Scotty’s Castle, we have been anxiously awaiting news on when the Castle would finally be restored and tours would resume. This fire will certainly be a setback on the recovery process not to mention the loss of it as a part of the story of the castle for future visitors.

On the last recovery update tour earlier this year, the guides were very ecstatic, as well as us guests, that the National Park Service had listened to all the voices from around the world that wanted to see the castle reopen and for the tours to come back.  The highlight of the tours is that the guides are dressed as if it were the 1930’s, the last year The Johnsons and Scotty had been there together.

Not only did they agree to restore the castle property and open the tours, but the National Park Service had also agreed to restore the property to the way it looked in that time period. Removing almost anything that had been added to the property after 1936.  Sadly, this was one of those outer structures they focused on preserving. Now lost for good.

 

What is Scotty’s Castle?

Scotty’s Castle was constructed in the 1920s as a vacation home for Albert and Bessie Johnson, millionaires from Chicago. Since its construction, Scotty’s Castle has drawn visitors seeking the truth behind the legend that it was built on a gold mine owned by the Johnsons’ friend, Walter “Scotty” Scott.

Scotty’s Castle Update

Scotty’s Castle, that mysterious structure out in Death Valley National Park, was almost wiped out of existence in a 2015 Flash Flood. Where this part of Death Valley would normally get maybe four inches of rain per year, it had 2.7 inches of rain in less than five hours!


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In February, I was able to be part of a small group of people to go out and visit the castle.  To get an update on the recovery and the restoration of the Castle.  This is a short report on what I learned on the tour of the historic landmark.

Scotty’s Castle is Still Here

Scotty's Castle Pool empty

Shortly after the flash floods of 2015 devastated Death Valley and almost ended the existence of this landmark, the National Park Service teamed up with Death Valley Natural History Museum and together, they have worked diligently to clean up, protect, and restore the castle, its belongings, and its surroundings.  This is not a normal project for the National Park Service. But then again, Scotty’s Castle is not your typical attraction for a National park!

Scotty’s Castle was built out in the remote parts of Death Valley in the 1920s and early 1930s. It was never fully completed.  But it had been occupied in one form or another until the 1980’s when it was sold to the National Park Service. The National Park Service took over the tours of the house and grounds and have done so up until the floods.

Working with Death Valley Natural History Association, the National Park Service has been able to go into the castle and see what is all in of the buildings. To see what damage was done by the floodwaters.  To get crews in to clean up some of the outer buildings that had up to four feet of mud inside them and to assess what was salvageable and what was not.

Using public feedback on what else to do with the castle, it was decided to restore the grounds in order to restart the tours inside the castle.  That meant making the grounds look as close to the original settings as they could.  Like in the tours, the year 1936 is the destination. To make the castle look as it did the last time Mr & Mrs. Johson and Death Valley Scotty was there together. Almost anything else that was added to the castle after that has been removed.

 

Mr. Johnson’s Castle

Unlike my last update tour of the castle, this tour we were not allowed to enter the actual castle. We were kept to the outside. This gave our National Park Ranger/Guide an opportunity to do a different type of tour.  One I had never experienced before in all the Death Valley and Scotty’s Castle tours I have done. And I have done a lot of them!!

She gave us the tour focusing on Mr. Albert Johnson. The wealthy businessman who Death Valley Scotty befriended and who was the actual man who designed and built the castle.   Mr. Johnson had a degree in civil engineering and had placed the castle in a spot that would protect the structure from flooding.  Yes, he planned for a flood to hit Death Valley!

To look at the castle, its structures surrounding the castle, and the recovery and restoration of the castle through the lens of Mr. Johnson, gave the tour a different feel and focus.  It was still entertaining for those who were not really Death valley geeks while giving a couple of the Death Valley geeks like yours truly, on the tour, some well-placed niblets of unique information.

Scottys Castle tour guide

So Why is it Not open?

They originally thought it would be opened back up by 2020. However, that was never set in stone. There were a lot of unknowns.  After acquiring the property, the National Park never was able to get a solid assessment of what was all inside the castle or the other buildings and exactly what was needed to preserve and protect it all. So now that the castle was closed, even the road going to the castle was washed away,  the National Park Service had a rare opportunity to go inside the castle and see exactly what was there and to do an inventory.

When they were first building the castle, the Johnson’s went all over the world to collect pieces of furniture, artwork, and even craftsman to work on the castle.  So now with it closed, the Park Service has been able to go in and actually see what all was there. To see what eighty years of Death Valley weather could do to priceless artifacts. They inventoried everything as they removed them to be stored in a secured, climate-controlled facility.

As they were removing flood debris that included up to four feet of mud in some of the offices and outer buildings, they also knew they had this rare opportunity to get other maintenance issues fixed.  Including problems that existed even before the Park Service took over. A chance to inspect and repair as much as they could without interruption of crowds.

 

It’s Being Done Right

This is not an easy process or a cheap one.  But it needed to be done.  It also had to be done in the proper way as to not alter too much the historic structures or the landmark itself.

Besides removing the tons of mud, removing all the debris, rebuilding the road, and stabilizing the buildings, they also started to work on making a complete inventory of the castle’s belongings.  Since the castle was without any utilities to protect the inside of the buildings from the Death Valley weather extremes, they need to act fast to catalog all the precious and historic artifacts inside as they were moved to a secure climate-controlled off-site storage location.

With everything else going on, they also had to start to make plans for how to prevent this from happening in the future. Again, without making significant changes to the historical integrity of the grounds.  Not an easy task!

They did and they are continuing to do it. But they are getting closer to the day where they can open it all back up to the public, including the tours!

Welcome to 1936!

The one thing we were told to observe was what wasn’t there.  When they were doing the tours, the tour guides were dressed and they talked as if it were 1936. That was the last year all the principal characters of the castle were there.  Anything added to the castle after that year was ignored by the guide as if it didn’t exist. Well, now the plan is to make it look like it did in 1936 by removing as much as they can of anything added to the grounds after that date.  Making it more realistic.

A Sincere Thank You

For all the grief I give the National Park Services for all the bonehead decisions they make. I need to pause here and give my sincere gratitude and my thankfulness that in this instance, the National Park Service, working with the Death Valley Natural History Association, Is Doing The Right Thing!  They are taking their time and getting it all done and doing it the proper way so that it will serve and preserve the castle for tourists for decades to come.

 

 

Look for the new opening dates of the castle to be somewhere between late 2022 or early 2023.