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Death Valley Truths

"Death Valley! The name tells us this is a place to be feared, shunned, avoided. But the truth remains that many came here ... in spite of illusions to the contrary..."

Death Valley is the lowest point in North America and one of the hottest places in the world. And yet, it has attracted people for some 10,000 years. Its human history is unique, complex, and fascinating. The people who lived here created illusions about this land and then dispelled them.

They came here to make their names, fortunes, and homes. They include the Timbisha Shoshone, intrepid miners, Chicago industrialist Albert Johnson and his wife Bessie, showman and con man, Death Valley Scotty, and others.

The Timbisha Shoshone had few illusions about Death Valley. They knew where water sources could be found and where edible plants grew. They were familiar with the habits of bighorn sheep, rabbits, and other wildlife they hunted. The Timbishas' knowledge allowed them to live in an arid land that rarely saw visitors.

Small groups camped regularly at desert water sources. There were summer camps in the Panamints and other mountain ranges. From the raw materials of the desert they fashioned the tools of survival. Theirs was a life of subsistence and simplicity. The arrival of European-Americans forced the Shoshone to change. They provided labor and knowledge in exchange for money to buy food and manufactured goods. The Shoshone later provided baskets and other items to tourists. By the 1930s the Timbisha, shuffled aside when Death Valley became a National Monument, were confined to a small village south of Furnace Creek. Tribal efforts to obtain federal recognition met with success in 1983. In 2000, congressional action provided for a 7,800 acre land trust the Timbisha could legally call home. Today, the Timbisha Shoshone are active partners with Death Valley National Park in preserving the land they have always called their homeland.

Mining in Death Valley
Death Valley's history is intertwined with the California gold rush. Searching for a shortcut to the diggings along the American River, mining hopefuls passed through this region in 1849-50. They gave Death Valley its name and were the first to discover its potential mineral wealth. 

Hopeful prospectors and miners returned here to search for gold and silver, hoping to make their fortunes in the desert. These activities followed boom and bust cycles where only the mine and mill owners prospered. Later mining operations focused on borax, talc, gypsum and salt.

Death Valley's remoteness contributed to the high cost of bringing in supplies. Local support operations were developed near natural springs. Several early ranching efforts aimed at raising animals and crops to serve the mining community developed into permanent settlements. Others focused on serving the growing tourist trade in the early 20th century.

Death Valley’s “white gold” deposits formed the basis for the area’s long term development and tourist industry.Borax was first discovered here in the 1870s. However, the region’s remoteness prevented successful mining activities until 1883 when the Harmony Borax Works opened. 

Borax deposits were gathered from the desert floor and purified at the Works, then shipped via 20-Mule Team wagons to the railhead at Mojave. The Pacific Coast Borax Company obtained mining rights in the area in 1890, opening the era of underground mining of Colemanite, a purer grade of borax. This led to the arrival of the Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad in 1907 and the growth of towns such as Beatty and Death Valley Junction.

Advertising of borax products, using images of the 20-mule teams, generated international publicity for Death Valley and hastened the development of tourism. Visitors often camped at the borax company’s developed property at the Greenland Ranch. To accommodate them, the company built tourist cabins there, and in 1927 opened the more-luxurious Furnace Creek Inn. They also transformed the mining town of Ryan into a hotel and used it rail lines to provide tourists with scenic rides overlooking the desert floor.

Borax mining in Death Valley has ended. Its legacy is still present in the mining remains and artifacts left by those who sought wealth in the white mineral deposits found here.

Science in Death Valley
Once called a “pit of horrors” where “only noxious and venomous things” lived, Death Valley’s mysteries attracted many who wanted to explore this stark and scorched land. They discovered much to appreciate.

Scientists and surveyors began trekking to the region in the 1850s while searching out a route for a transcontinental railroad. An 1861 survey party made an incredible discovery about Death Valley: it sits below sea level! 

Later scientists discovered a wealth of intriguing fossils, unusual minerals, and exotic flora and fauna adapted for desert survival. Scientific investigations continued after Death Valley became a National Monument in 1933. 

The increase in visitation hastened the need for improvements. During the 1930s, members of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) worked to improve roads, water lines, and other facilities for visitors.

Fossil and geologic specimens, historic advertisements and postcards, and the great wealth of photographic and film records have been preserved and still excite interest in a land once feared, but now venerated for its mystery and extremes.

Touring Death Valley
By the early 20th century, the publicity surrounding Death Valley enticed many to experience the desert. Railroads opened up the region and the automobile made its appearance by 1904, in spite of the lack of roads.

One of the earliest roads through Death Valley's was built by Bob Eichbaum in 1926 to allow travelers to reach his newly-opened resort at Stovepipe Wells. The attraction of comfortable accommodations in the warm desert climate attracted hundreds of winter vacationers to his "Bungalette City." It featured electricity, a swimming pool, golf course, and spectacular vistas of the desert landscape.

The Pacific Coast Borax Company found itself in the campground business as tourists in the early 1920s came to the green oasis of the Furnace Creek Ranch to settle for the night. The company eventually built small cabins on its land, as well as the Furnace Creek Inn and the Death Valley View Hotel, to provide accommodations for the increasing tourist trade.

By the time Death Valley National Monument was created in 1933, tourism had been a mainstay of the local economy for more than a decade. Picture postcards, travel books, and even feature films made on location in Death Valley enticed even more to enjoy a vacation in the desert.

Today's tourists enjoy modern accommodations, air conditioning, paved roads, museums, 10,000 years of human history and a billion years of geological wonders in this national park.

Scotty's Castle
A journey to Scotty's Castle reveals a light-hearted deception begun in the 1920's by a Chicago millionaire, his wife and their cowboy partner, Death Valley Scotty.

What the world knows as Scotty’s Castle was really a vacation home for Chicago millionaire Albert Johnson and his wife, Bessie.  The Castle’s namesake, Death Valley Scotty, initially lured the couple to Death Valley with irresistible tales of his mysterious gold mine. 

Although the story of the gold mine proved to be a farce, the natural riches and sweeping beauty of Death Valley captivated the Johnsons.  Albert began purchasing land in lush Grapevine Canyon. It had a series of natural springs that fostered life and prosperity 3,000 feet above the brutal desert floor.  Over time, the rough desert camp was transformed into a luxurious desert estate, complete with modern-day conveniences.

Today, Scotty’s Castle is truly an enchanting oasis in Death Valley.  The detailed ironwork, original furnishings, decorative artwork and desert flourishes create a magical sanctuary.  They reveal the transformation of a peaceful and remote plot of land into a modern, self-sufficient vacation complex.  The sprawling retreat symbolizes the Johnson’s privileged lifestyle and fascination with the uncompromising desert.

Death Valley Ranch
Albert Johnson was not the first person to recognize the value of land in northern Death Valley. Johnson purchased 1,500 acres in Death Valley between 1915 and 1927. This included land in Grapevine Canyon that had been owned by German immigrant, Jacob Steininger.

Steininger used the area’s springs to cultivate a farm, growing vegetables, fig trees and grape vines. Although Johnson called his landholdings Death Valley Ranch, he did not continue Steininger’s agricultural efforts. While Johnson did build a chicken coop and house a few other animals, Death Valley Ranch, better known as Scotty's Castle, was a “gentleman’s ranch,” purely for rest and relaxation.

Although Death Valley Ranch lacked most of the features found on a working ranch, Scotty’s actual residence, the nearbyJohnson owned Lower Vine Ranch, lived up to its name. Johnson made improvements on this land in the late 1920s to support his claims for legal ownership.

Workers transformed what had been Johnson and Scotty’s provisional desert camp at nearby Lower Vine into a functioning, if simple, ranch. Scotty’s modest cabin, a grain shed, an alfalfa field, and the presence of various animals made this area resemble a true working ranch. Johnson largely abandoned any agricultural activity once he secured ownership, but these features reveal Lower Vine Ranch’s short-lived past as a real ranch.

Building the Castle
We build as fancy leads..." Bessie Johnson

For Johnson and his construction team, transforming his Death Valley land holdings into the estate that stands today was no easy feat. The site, at 3,000 feet, is nestled between the scorching desert and towering mountains. The engineer envisioned a practical complex using innovative technology and alternative sources of energy in the spring-fed canyon.

Charles Alexander MacNeilledge, a Los Angeles architect, captured Johnson's vision and oversaw the design. Close to 100 crew, most local Shoshone Timbisha Indians were hired. Material was hauled to the site in trucks from the Bonnie Claire railroad station, located 18 miles from Grapevine Canyon. The existence of the railroads and basic road system facilitated the movement of construction tools and materials through the seemingly remote surroundings. Creating the Johnsons' dream home took many years of hard labor and close to $2 million dollars.

Work began on the Johnsons' permanent vacation retreat in 1922. After completing a few harsh-looking buildings that disrupted the landscape's tranquility, laborers remodeled the estate in the Spanish Colonial Revival style. Johnson employed many workers for this daunting project, including local Timbisha Shoshone men. A high turnover rate may be indicative of more than just the extreme natural environment. Workers were immediately fired if caught violating any of Johnson's strict set of rules.

The house has thick walls and deep-set windows so that heat doesn't penetrate. While it looks like adobe, in fact, the house is wood framed with stucco. The walls were filled with insulation that keeps the house cool in the blistering heat.

The complete vision for Death Valley Ranch was never fully realized. A land dispute with the federal government caused Johnson to abruptly halt construction in 1931. Even though he was able to regain private ownership of his vacation home in 1937, Johnson could not accumulate the necessary funds or energy to execute the Castle's finishing touches. An unfinished pool and other incomplete landscape features will forever expose the abrupt end of construction at Scotty's Castle.

Furnishing the Castle
The Johnsons' love affair with the rugged desert and their sophisticated, spiritual background are evident in the handsome Spanish Colonial Revival furnishings and artworks throughout the Castle. A touch of Scotty's rowdy influence fused refinement and humor that give the Castle its unique ambience.

Scotty's Castle furnishings reflect the distinct personalities of Albert and Bessie Johnson and Death Valley Scotty. The Johnsons were accustomed to a privileged lifestyle. Their vacation home reflected the luxuries they had always enjoyed. Vintage cars indicate the Johnsons' effortless mobility in a time when travel was a luxury. While many of Bessie's possessions reveal her love of the finer things in life, her sober, religious side is also expressed in objects found in their home.

Although the furnishings and objects reveal the Johnsons' background, Scotty left his mark throughout the Castle as well. Many items, including two "shotsplitters," plates with curved edges, and a garbage can disguised as a well enhanced Scotty's famous stories. Perhaps even Albert's impressive gun collection was amassed with Scotty's tales of desert showdowns in mind. The furnishings, like the structure itself, were "Spanish Provincial" as Bessie called them, gathered from the Mediterranean. They ranged from handcrafted vernacular to opulent.

The home was influenced by nostalgia for the Old West and the romanticism of Spanish Colonial Revival style, or what Bessie called "Spanish Provincial." It did not lack the extravagance of the Johnsons' Chicago lifestyle.

Desert Lifestyle
"... Then we began decorating and glorifying it till it turned into a castle with an organ and a bell tower and chimes. .. it makes a fine lodge when we come in off the desert, hot and dusty. It's not nearly finished and maybe never will be..." Bessie Johnson

The Johnsons were accustomed to a privileged lifestyle. Their desert vacation home reflected some of the luxuries they had always enjoyed. Vintage cars indicate the Johnsons' effortless mobility in a time when travel was a luxury. While many of Bessie's possessions reveal her love of the finer things in life, her sober, religious side is also expressed in items found in their home.

Scotty left his mark throughout the Castle as well. Numerous items in the house, including two "shotsplitters," plates with curved edges, and a garbage can disguised as a well enhanced Scotty's famous stories. Albert's impressive gun collection was probably amassed with Scotty's tales of desert showdowns in mind. Overall, the home was influenced by nostalgia for the Old West but did not lack the extravagance of the Johnsons' Chicago lifestyle.

Vacation & Recreation

Few were immune to Scotty's ability to amaze and entice the public. As Scotty's popularity grew, so did his influence in drawing visitors out of their comfort zones. While the average person was wary of venturing into Death Valley, Scotty's renditions made life in the desert seem exciting and glamorous. His endless tales of adventure transformed Death Valley into a popular tourist destination, with Scotty's Castle as its crown jewel.

The Johnsons, realizing the public's fascination with their impressive abode and best friend, began to offer guided tours of the home in the 1930s. Bessie herself often acted as head tour guide, and later wrote a script for paid employees.

Travelers jumped at the chance to stay in one of the Castle's luxurious guest rooms and perhaps catch Scotty telling stories all night long. Scotty and the Johnsons even played host to many of the rich and famous of the day. Will Rogers, Betty Davis, and John Barrymore were among the celebrities who enjoyed visits to Scotty's Castle.

Death Valley then entered the national limelight with a popular radio and television program "Death Valley Days." For those not fortunate enough to personally visit Death Valley, the show provided a glimpse of the excitement of the desert. Today, Scotty's Castle and Death Valley are still permanent fixtures in popular culture and visitors' imaginations.

Johnsons: A Photo Album

"We have been partners for a long time. Scott has a great appetite for money and I like to feed it. He has always repaid me --with laughs." Albert Johnson "You may have your cities and electric lights, movies, dancing parties, and surging crowds; but for thrill... give me moonlight in the desert." Bessie Johnson

Albert Johnson, born into an affluent Chicago family, was trained as an engineer. He traveled west and became enamored with the parched desert. After a train accident, he returned to Chicago and went into insurance. There he met Scotty. Taken with the con man, Johnson went to the desert to check out the fabled mine. He felt well in the stark landscape. Johnson and Scotty became mining partners and friends.

Later, Bessie, joined Albert on his desert vacations. She went camping with Albert and Scotty, and stayed in the rough Grapevine Canyon accommodations. The Johnsons' developed their land into the fabled Death Valley Ranch, known as Scotty's Castle. There Bessie continued her gospel work and entertained, and attended to the increasing number of visitors.

Scotty: A Photo Album
"I got four things to live by; Don't say nothin' that will hurt anybody. Don't give advice -- nobody will take it anyway. Don't complain. Don't explain."
Death Valley Scotty [1872-1954]

Walter Scott's fascination with the West began when he was a young man. First a cowhand, then waterboy for a survey party on the California-Nevada border, and later, Scotty had a 12-year stint as a rodeo rider for the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show.

Con man and showman, Death Valley Scotty's charmed wealthy Chicagoans, Albert and Bessie Johnson. He created mythical mines to sell to a gullible public. In between promoting his enterprises, he retreated to Death Valley and burnished his growing reputation.