The “Castle” in the Middle of Death Valley

Dona Yu via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Dona Yu via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0 / Dona Yu via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

If you happen to stumble upon the onetime residence of Albert Mussey Johnson while visiting Death Valley, you might briefly wonder if you’re suffering from heatstroke. After all, it’s not every day you see a $2.5 million Spanish Colonial Revival villa smack in the middle of nowhere.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, a man named Walter Scott traveled with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and earned quite a reputation as a cowboy. After he quit the show, Scott decided to try his hand at gold prospecting and used his newfound status to convince wealthy businessmen to invest in his Death Valley mine.

The only problem: there was no Death Valley gold mine. Whether he actually even tried to find one or simply spent his time and energy swindling investors is still up for debate. Whatever the case may be, Scott had no qualms about spending the money he had collected on himself.

One such investor was Albert Mussey Johnson, an insurance bigwig from Chicago. Johnson was likely one of Scott’s biggest investors, funneling thousands of dollars into the “mine” without ever seeing any evidence of the precious metal. After several years of this, enough was enough, and Johnson booked a trip to Death Valley to see what was going on. When he arrived, Scott made his investor “tour” the desert for days, hoping that the oppressive heat would deter Johnson from hanging out for very long.

It didn’t. Johnson loved the dry heat, and, amazingly, loved Walter Scott. The insurance mogul was well aware that he had been duped, but he couldn’t help but like the man who conned him. For the next decade, Johnson and his wife vacationed in Death Valley to visit Scott every winter. Sick of camping in canvas tents, Bessie Johnson convinced her husband to build something they could live in during their frequent visits. Though the Johnsons financed it, Scott told people that he was building a lavish desert mansion with his profits from the gold mine. Incredibly, when reporters asked Johnson about it, he corroborated Scott’s story—and the mansion became “Scotty’s Castle.”

Construction came to a halt in 1931 when the Johnsons discovered a surveying error that meant they were building on federal land, not private. When they died in the 1940s, the Johnsons left the unfinished castle to their charity, the Gospel Foundation. The charity also took care of Scotty, who lived in the castle during his final years. When he died in 1954, Scotty was buried on a hill overlooking the estate that wasn’t actually his, even though it bore his name.

Most of the time, this incredible product of the strange friendship is still open for tours, but sadly, Scotty’s Castle was damaged by recent flash floods—a storm in October resulted in 2.7 inches of rain, more than the area usually gets in 12 months. With more than a foot of mud covering the floor of the visitor’s center, damaging and destroying exhibits, Scotty’s Castle could be closed for up to a year. The good news: there are plenty of other castles around the country ready to receive tourists.