Walter Scott, Better Known as Death Valley Scotty

Albert Johnson

Albert Johnson

Scotty and Albert Johnson

Scotty’s remaining investor was Chicago insurance magnate Albert Mussey Johnson. The two men struck quite a contrast to one another when they met soon after the turn of the century. Mr. Johnson was a well respected and religious man, whereas Scotty was a rowdy and shady character. 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 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 who was in ill health due to 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, endured the “Battle” of Wingate Pass, 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.

Albert Johnson bought property in Grapevine Canyon and eventually built the Death Valley Ranch, which would later become better known as Scotty’s Castle. While Scott traveled frequently, he was regarded as a permanent resident of the castle. Nevertheless, it is evident that his participation in the project was far from direct.

Scotty's Castle, Death Valley, California

Scotty’s Castle, Death Valley, California

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.”

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.

The Johnsons with Death Valley Scotty in the Great Hall of Scotty's Castle

The Johnsons with Death Valley Scotty in the Great Hall of Scotty’s Castle

Towards the end of the Great Depression, the Johnson’s retired to Hollywood, California and often visited the Castle, which had become a popular hotel and tourist attraction due to the fame of Death Valley Scotty. Thousands of tourists, along with Hollywood movie stars and reporters from around the country, flocked to the Castle each year to see what they thought would be the dwelling of one of the world’s richest gold miners.

The Johnson’s died in the 1940’s, and having no heirs, willed the Castle to a charitable organization called the Gospel Foundation of California. For various reasons, the Johnson felt beneficent towards Scott, and in a verbal agreements made specific provisions allowing Scott the right to live out the rest of his life at the castle. Walter Scott died in January of 1954 and was laid to rest on a hill overlooking the famous home that now bears his name.

In 1970, the Gospel Foundation sold the estate to the National Park Service, whose job is to protect and preserve the Castle for present and future generations to enjoy. Perhaps Death Valley Scotty had that in mind when he proclaimed: “The Hall of Fame is going up. We’re building a Castle that will last at least a thousand years. As long as there’s men on earth, likely, these walls will stand here.”


Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated April 2019.

Also See:

Albert Mussey Johnson

Death Valley National Park

Death Valley Photo Gallery

Scotty’s Castle


Death Valley National Park
Historic American Building Survey
Johnston, Hank; Death Valley Scotty: “Fastest Con in the West”, Trans-Anglo Books, 1974

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