Scotty’s Castle: A Sanctuary in the Desert of California


Scotty’s Castle is a ranch in Death Valley that is not really a castle and is not owned by any Scotty. It was built by Albert Johnson, an insurance broker from Chicago. Johnson was lured to Death Valley by one Walter Scott, known as “Death Valley Scotty,” who persuaded him to invest in what was later revealed to be a nonexistent gold mine. And his wife insisted Johnson stay there because of the climate favorable to his health.

Scotty was a native of Kentucky and once appeared on Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show. He is best described by historian Richard E. Lingenfelter: “Scotty of Death Valley was a talentless actor, an unscrupulous fraud, and an almost pathological liar. Despite all his bravado, he always had a smile at the ready, a great gift for ducking and ingratiating mannerisms that disarmed even his harshest critics. But behind the charming showman you could sense a secretiveness and tension in his steely blue eyes that made his jaw turn to granite at times. He was a greedy attention hunter, a reckless self-promoter willing to say or do anything for another moment in the spotlight.”

Tired of their modest cottage, the Johnsons decided to build a castle, Albert’s dream home, Bessie’s cozy corner and Scotty’s con man hideout. Construction began tumultuously with the roaring twenties and burst with the economic crisis of the thirties. In 1922, Johnson invested $1.4 million dollars in the project. While the castle was under construction, he agreed to act as Scotty’s “banker,” and Scotty, in turn, told potential investors from the town that he was building a $2 million home with funds from his gold mine, the same mythical mine in which he had tricked Johnson into investing.

However, with the abrupt end of the Roaring Twenties and the stock market crash of 1929, this scam failed. In 1930, President Hoover mandated the creation of Death Valley National Park, encompassing the area Johnson had built on and which he did not own. Although he was eventually able to buy the land under his ranch, the castle was never completed because Johnson’s insurance company went bankrupt in 1933.

The Johnsons moved to Hollywood and made occasional visits to the castle. Together with them in the castle, turned into a hotel, arrived and crowds of tourists who dreamed of at least a glimpse of the famous “Scotty from Death Valley”, who continued to live there. After his death, Johnson bequeathed the castle to a religious organization, which in 1970 sold it to Death Valley National Park for $850,000. And Death Valley Scotty remained near “his” castle and watches over it from his grave on the hillside.

Today, Scotty’s Castle is still a tourist attraction in Death Valley National Park. Visitors can walk around the unfinished mansion on their own or take a guided tour, including an underground tour. The castle sometimes hosts detective shows.

Useful to know

Scotty’s Castle is located 6.5 km from the entrance to the national park from highway 267.