a home for desert rats
Long before Death Valley was declared a national park, visitors flocked there in droves to see the home of one of the most singular celebrities of the Roaring Twenties.
More than a century later, the Death Valley Ranch, popularly known as Scotty’s Castle, continues to receive a steady influx of visitors. Park rangers, dressed in clothes from the era of the castle’s heyday in the 1920s and 1930s, lead guided tours, recounting its history and telling some of Scotty’s favorite yarns, which he would spin to the wide-eyed admiration of countless gullible guests.
The castle is an hour’s drive from Furnace Creek and many of Death Valley’s main attractions so we were on the fence about going, especially after running ourselves ragged in the mid-morning heat. It wound up being our favorite place we visited in Death Valley.
Death Valley Scotty, the purported denizen of the Death Valley Ranch, was a full-time con artist. After the Gold Rush boom, he procured several gold nuggets in Colorado and travelled East to drum up investments for a nonexistent mine he claimed to have discovered in Death Valley. Scotty could tell a good story and he was fairly successful in his little scheme until one of the men he had hoodwinked – a wealthy businessman from Chicago by the name of Albert Johnson – decided to pay a visit to the mine he had been financing.
Johnson took the train out to California. Scotty met him at the train station with horses and a team of riders ready to accompany them on the dangerous and none too comfortable multi-day ride out to the desert. This being the wild wild West, it was only natural that the riding party would get ambushed by bandits, who opened fire from behind a mountain ridge and wounded Scotty’s brother in the process. Scotty reacted by jumping off his horse, waving his arms madly, and yelling at the bandits to stop shooting – “You’ve nearly killed my brother, you idiots.”
The ambush had been a setup to scare Johnson back to Chicago. Instead, he resolved all the more to see the mythical mine. Scotty took him to a remote corner of Death Valley, and they camped in the desert, close to a natural spring that provided the lone source of water in miles of desert. The dry heat of the desert had a restorative effect on Johnson’s poor health and he decided to build a vacation home in Death Valley.
Although he had been had, Johnson did not sever his ties with Scotty. Instead, he hired him, paying him a monthly stipend to live at the castle and continue telling his stories. In fact, the two became so close that Mrs. Johnson started referring to them as a pair of desert rats. Meanwhile, the castle gained notoriety. It was featured in news stories and started attracting so many visitors that Scotty started charging admission for guided tours. In addition to attracting all sorts of curious guests, who showed up unannounced, Hollywood celebrities and even President Hoover paid a visit to Death Valley Scotty. The Johnsons expanded the house, adding guest bedrooms and converting the library into a dining room so that Scotty could entertain guests. They would eat in the kitchen while Scotty held court in the dining room next door, telling all manner of falsehoods to his credulous guests.
Johnson never recouped his investment in Scotty’s mine, but he was fond of saying that Scotty paid him back in laughs.