ON THE NEVADA BORDER – While driving south on U.S. 95 between Reno and Las Vegas, I spotted a small sign that read “Scotty’s Castle” with an arrow pointing west. It might not have drawn my attention except for this one factor:
Several years earlier, I read a newspaper story about an old desert rat who used empty wine and beer bottles to build a house somewhere in the California desert. Always on the lookout for things of an unusual nature, I instantly figured that this must be the bottle place so I turned west on Highway 267 and went to take a look.
I was wrong. Scotty’s Castle is not a shack made of used glass containers. Furthermore, it’s not really castle, but it’s big enough to be one. And it is magnificent. So despite my self-generated misinformation, it was a beneficial mistake.
It is situated in a most unlikely place – the arid, semi-barren desert. It’s a two-story Mission Revival and Spanish Colonial Revival style villa set in the quiet splendor of Death Valley National Park. The Grapevine Mountains look down upon it, and most of the time it is completely surrounded by the stillness common to a desert landscape.
Chicago millionaire Albert Johnson had it built in the early 1920s. He and his wife first came to Death Valley a few years earlier at the urging of Walter Scott, who claimed to have a rich gold mine in the area. Johnson invested in the mine but came to Death Valley more for his health than for wealth. He was suffering from a back problem that required a dry, hot climate and it began to improve after his visits so he bought a 1,500-acre piece of land in Grapevine Canyon and started construction of his winter home.
A combination of legend and fact says that Scott, also known as Death Valley Scotty, befriended the Johnsons and was allowed to stay on the mansion grounds while it was being built. Scott was a combination con man, actor, bronco buster and prospector. He had ridden in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, played the lead in a stage production about his life, and convinced several easterners to invest in his mine, which he claimed was a top producer. But none ever saw any returns in their investments. He also bragged that the castle was his and Johnson, the real owner, was so accustomed to Scotty’s exaggerations that he let them be taken as fact.
So Johnson’s mansion became Scotty’s castle.
Johnson’s wife Bessie died as the result of a car accident in 1943. Johnson succumbed to cancer five years later. They had no heirs so they left the property to a religious organization, which sold it to the National Park Service in 1970 for $850,000. Scotty died in 1954 and was buried on a hill overlooking “his castle.”
The site is open to the public and the Park Service conducts guided tours. The rangers dress in period costumes to enhance the setting, and visitors get to hear music emitting from a 1,121-pipe theater organ the Johnsons had installed during construction. For those of us who like to see how things work, an underground tour includes a visit to the quarter mile of tunnels that run beneath the big house.
The interior is simply splendid. Spanish tiles adorn both walls and floors; large windows offer views of the surroundings; and statues and other works of art are sprinkled across the luxuriant living and dining areas. The designers spent months in Spain and Italy gathering the furniture and other furnishings.
The castle visitor center and museum are easily walkable for both young and old. An estimated 100,000 people tour the site every year. Most of them get there on purpose, not by accident like I did.
Scotty’s Castle is located about 45 miles north of Stovepipe Wells, California, on Highway 267.