In February 1933 President Hoover signed the proclamation making Death Valley a National Monument, and the lands it encompassed contained those of the Ranch. In August, 1935 President Roosevelt signed a bill, allowing Johnson the right to buy the land in question. The provisions of the act allowed Johnson to purchase the lands he thought already his for $1.25 an acre. It was not until November, 1937, however, that the patent was actually issued and the 1,529 acres actually purchased and exchanged. By this time, Johnson had lost most of his fortune and could not afford to resume construction anew.
The Depression did not immediately affect Johnson’s fortunes and directly cause the sudden and final cessation of construction. In fact, it was four years after the crash on Wall Street when the nation’s economic condition actually caught up with him and his project. In 1933 the National Life Insurance Company went into receivership. Johnson had invested a large proportion of the company’s assets in banking, an activity that was hit especially hard in the 1930s. National Life had purchased over 12,000 shares of Continental Illinois and Johnson was one of its directors. Shares of Continental sold for as high as $1,400. After the crash it sold for as little as $17.11
The heavy investment Johnson made in a rayon factory in Burlington, North Carolina, only compounded matters. The plant, under construction for several years, never opened and never produced a yard of fabric. The two million dollars Johnson invested included personal and company funds and failed to return a single cent. Much of the money used to finance the rayon venture came from National Life. When National went Into receivership, the plant, along with the life insurance company itself, was put on the auction block.
National was eventually awarded to Sears, Roebuck and Co. and renamed Hercules Life. The plant was included in the exchange. Some explanations claim that Johnson’s fascination with the Castle, the desert, and the isolation the two afforded, caused his economic downfall. Johnson had built his hideaway in such an eccentric location because he did not want neighbors and because he regularly felt the need to escape the incessant pressures of the business world. Johnson’s absences from Chicago were keenly felt at the office. The Castle had no telephone and the nearest telegraph station and post office was 25 miles away in Bonnie Claire, Nevada . When matters of great importance surfaced at work, Johnson could not be reached. The day-to-day management of the company fell to those who were less able to handle the situation that arose. Some of those who were closest to Mr. Johnson felt sure that if he had attended more closely to business and had not been away so much of the time in California he would have averted the collapse of National Life.
Although Johnson lacked a steady income once the life insurance company was sold he did retain substantial private property holdings: the homes in Chicago and Hollywood, Shadelands Ranch and of course, the Castle. His financial situation was serious enough that Johnson sold his home in Chicago and would have to develop other sources of revenue. Still, a man of great business acumen, Johnson capitalized on what he still had. The house in Hollywood became his principal residence but offered little in terms of income-producing potential. Although the Johnsons were to depend upon it more dearly for an income, the nut and fruit trees of the Shadelands Ranch, which Bessie had inherited from her parents, produced much as they had before the Depression. Only the commercial potential of the Castle itself was yet untapped.
In the 1920s Death Valley was being strongly promoted and developed as a tourist attraction. The fundamental requirement to the region’s success was its accessibility to the public. The growing popularity of the automobile as the public’s preferred choice of travel required the building of new roads and the improvement of those already in place if the area’s potential as a public attraction was to be successfully exploited. Much of the land in Death Valley belonged to the U.S. Borax Company. When the mining of borax became less profitable, the company lobbied for the establishment of the area as a national monument and began developing plans for a luxury resort inside the valley. Although the idea of establishing Death Valley as a national monument was favorably received by Stephen Mather, then the director of the National Park Service, he was reluctant to act. Mather, himself a former borax executive, thought that if he personally advocated the company’s proposal too strongly it would result in cries of foul play and favoritism. In January 1929 Horace Albright replaced Mather, whose failing health forced him to resign. Although Albright, like Mather, had personal and professional connections with the Borax industry, Albright was less fearful of accusations of favoritism and proceeded quickly in proposing boundaries and drafting tentative legislation.
At much the same time other smaller interests were developing their own projects. In May 1926 Herman William Eichbaum opened a 38-mile scenic toll-road through Towne Pass and over the mountains bordering Death Valley to the west. The following November, Eichbaum opened his Stove Pipe Wells Hotel, approximately 40 miles south of Grapevine Canyon, on the Death Valley floor. Soon thereafter, the U.S. Borax Company financed the construction of the Furnace Creek Inn. It opened to the public in February 1927, 15 miles south of Stove Pipe Wells. To the east, on the Nevada side of the Castle, new roads were being promoted as well. By 1930, the first improved automobile road north through the valley and up towards Death Valley Ranch was nearly complete. Its effects were felt at the castle, as noted by Thompson in letters to Albert Johnson in March 1930.
“The two glaziers drove down the valley this afternoon, on the road that Mr. Eichbaum has been grading. Mr. Eichbaum and his wife drove up this road from [their hotel] to the Ranch in 2 1/2 hours, and many cars are coming over it lately. The new Valley road makes it possible to run down to Los Angeles in nine hours.”
Road promoters often told people about the “Castle” to the north and suggested they see it for themselves. It was not long after the road was improved, that visitors, mostly uninvited, stopped by Death Valley Ranch for a quick look and sometimes more. The topic of “visitors” became a subject to be included in most of Thompson’s progress reports to Johnson.
“Forty to eighty [visitors] nearly every day. We do not feed them, except rarely when Scotty gives certain ones special invitation.”
The number of visitors grew as tourism became more popular and the access by car less difficult or dangerous. Less than a year after the road was opened Thompson reported to Johnson:
“There are about 100 visitors a day driving through here this weekend, because of the double holiday. . . The two hotels in the Valley are turning dozens of people away each night.”