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Albert Mussey Johnson

Albert Johnson

Albert Mussey Johnson (1872 - 1948)

Albert Mussey Johnson was born May 31, 1872, into a wealthy Quaker family in Oberlin, Ohio. Albert H. Johnson, Albert's father, was a wealthy banker and financier with investments in railroads and quarries.

After finishing school in Oberlin, Johnson entered Cornell University in 1892 and earned a degree in civil engineering. While there he met and became engaged to Bessie Morris Penniman, who had transferred from Stanford. The two were married on November 19, 1896, at Bessie's childhood home, Shadelands Ranch, in Walnut Creek, California.

The newly married couple moved into a small home of their own not far from Oberlin, where Albert began work with the Platform Binder Company. Later that same year Albert borrowed $40,000 from his father to invest in mining operations in Joplin, Missouri, an area undergoing an economic boom due to the discovery of zinc. Within a year, Albert had received a 500 percent return on his investment!

During 1897-98 Albert was secretary and manager of the Mussey Stone Company, a firm partially owned by his father. In December 1899, Albert and his father traveled through Utah and Colorado inspecting the potential of several possible enterprises, principally those related to mining and power generation. During their journey, the two men were involved in a train accident. The elder Johnson died instantly, while Albert suffered a severly broken back. For the next eighteen months Albert was bedridden, and some doctors feared that he would not live past his fortieth birthday.

Although he would ultimately live well past the age of forty, the accident left him with a chronic medical condition for the rest of his life. He walked slightly stooped with a noticeable limp due to a baseball-sized callous that developed towards the base of his back. The injury motivated him to have furniture custom-designed to be more comfortable and to wear clothing that was slightly oversized so that his callous would not show. One account mentions that he even had some bathroom fixtures specially designed to accommodate his back.

The injury also affected his career. Because of the effects of his injury the rugged travel necessary to inspect mining operations had to be restricted. Instead, Johnson focused his professional efforts on the world of investment finance. After a one-year period as vice-president of the Arkansas Midland Railroad, Johnson, together with E.A. Shedd, a former partner of Albert's father, purchased the National Life Insurance Company and installed Johnson as its treasurer. By 1906 Johnson was president of the North American Cold Storage Company. The latter was a warehouse operation that bought and sold commodities, primarily butter and eggs.

In November 1916, Johnson moved to a new home. Built at a cost of $600,000 for Albert C. Wheeler, this marble mansion sat on the shore of Lake Michigan. Both Johnson and his wife were intensely religious, adhering to a strict fundamentalism. Neither of them drank, smoked, played cards, or attended the theater.

In 1904, Walter Scott was in Chicago seeking backers for his legendary gold mines, and E.A. Shedd and Albert Johnson invested. Despite receiving no return on his investment, and even after the person he sent to check on Scott reported that there was no gold mine, Johnson continued to invest in Scott's ventures. In 1906, Johnson made his first attempt to visit the gold mine in Death Valley. In what later became known as the Battle of Wingate Pass, the party was attacked on its way into the valley. During the scuffle, Walter Scott's brother Warner was shot in the groin and the party had to leave in search of medical attention for Warner. In 1909, Johnson again went to California. Although he still found nothing in the way of gold mines, the dry weather and outdoor life proved beneficial to his health. Johnson made repeated trips to visit Scott in the desert and by the time he realized that there was no gold mine, he had started to acquire land. Of the 1,500 acres he eventually owned, the Steininger Ranch was the most important parcel. Nestled in a spring-fed verdant valley, this was soon to be the site of the Death Valley Ranch.

Johnson's business interests prospered in the 1920s, as reflected in the construction activity at the ranch. In the 1930's Johnson's fortune declined, although he was never a poor man. He moved from Chicago to Los Angeles and spent more time at the ranch. At his death in 1948, he willed most of his fortune and property to the Gospel Foundation, an organization he founded in 1946. His wish was that the National Park Service would one day purchase the property, which occurred in 1970.

All biographical information was taken from:
Historical Structures Report: Main House and Annex
Scotty's Castle, Death Valley Ranch
Published by U.S. Department of Interior, National Park Service
September 1991

Did You Know?

The salt stretches across the floor of Death Valley

The salt pan on the floor of Death Valley covers more than 200 square miles. It is 40 miles long and more than 5 miles wide.