Building Scotty's Castle

Legend has it that Death Valley Scotty built his castle on top of his secret gold mine that funded this lavish house. But the true story is even more improbable and interesting!

two men in suits in a historic photograph
Albert Johnson and Walter Scott.

An Unlikely Friendship

Walter Scott ("Death Valley Scotty") was a rowdy and shady character, with little luck for gold prospecting but great luck in spending investor's money. Albert Mussey Johnson was a well respected and religious Chicagao insurance magnate. The two could not have been more different.

Convinced to invest in Scotty's mine, Mr. Johnson gave thousands of dollars to Scotty over the next several years. Unfortunately, at least according to Scotty, a number of calamities prevented delivery of the gold. Undaunted, Mr. Johnson finally decided to take a look at the gold mine on a personal tour of Death Valley.

Scotty remained cool. Using his Grapevine Canyon home as base camp, Scotty took Mr. Johnson on a grueling trek by horseback through Death Valley. He figured a few days in the desert would be too much for the city slicker whose health had been permanently impaired by a near-fatal train accident in his youth. Surprisingly, Johnson loved Death Valley so much that he stayed nearly a month, and his health improved dramatically in the dry, sunny climate.

Although he never saw Scotty's mine and was most certainly being swindled, Mr. Johnson did not seem to mind. He had found riches in the desert far greater than those that glitter. Besides, he had taken a liking to the eccentric desert rat. The two men began a lifelong friendship that would change the history of Death Valley forever.

three people seated in a lavishly furnished house
Bessie, Scotty, and Albert seated in the lavishly decorated castle.

A Suitable Vacation Home

Over the next ten winters, Albert Johnson often returned to Death Valley. His wife, Bessie Penniman Johnson, began to accompany him and Scotty on their desert expeditions. Mrs. Johnson suggested that they build something more comfortable for their vacations, so as to "get away from the rattlesnakes and scorpions." This idea led to the construction of the Death Valley Ranch in the 1920's.

Early construction consisted of only box-like structures, which at the time were better than the canvas tents that Mrs. Johnson had been staying in. Later, after the concept plan was decided on, Death Valley Ranch began to take on some of its Spanish-Mediterranean design features.

Recognizing a good story, Scotty told everyone that he was building the two million dollar home with profits from his gold mine. When questioned by the droves of reporters who visited, Mr. Johnson agreed that Scotty owned the place, and simply said that he was "Scotty's banker."

Construction was halted in 1931 when Mr. Johnson discovered that due to a surveying error, he was building his castle on federal land. The Great Depression was beginning to take hold and construction on the Castle was never restarted. Today the Castle remains as Albert left it - incomplete.

a vehicle and people next to a castle
Visitors to the castle in 1935.

The Castle Today

Scotty's Castle is owned and operated by the National Park Service and has been a part of Death Valley National Park since 1970. For decades, park rangers dressed in period costumes have led tours of the castle grounds and told stories of the Johnsons and Death Valley Scotty.

In 2015, a devastating flood damaged some of the buildings and infrastructure. The National Park Service is working to rebuild and restore areas of the Death Valley Scotty Historic District.

When the castle area reopens, we invite you to tour Scotty's Castle with a living history guide, visit the museum with it's momentos of Albert and Bessie Johnson and Death Valley Scotty, take a walk to Albert's power house with it's diesel generators and Pelton waterwheels, and explore the green oasis and rock gardens that are the Castle grounds.

Last updated: August 16, 2023

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Mailing Address:

P.O. Box 579
Death Valley, CA 92328


760 786-3200

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