An odd friendship between an eccentric millionaire and a Wild West con man had its beginnings in Death Valley.
The concealed hole by the main door has us puzzled. Was it really created in order to unleash a shotgun blast on bandits wanting the householder’s gold? Or was it just a theatrical gimmick to amuse guests?
At Scotty’s Castle, a stately home deep within Death Valley, little is truly as it seems. For a start, it is a mansion rather than a castle. Secondly, it did not belong to Scotty, although this mercurial con man did hang around the place in the interwar years.
I am with a group on a regular tour of the lavish home that once belonged to Chicago millionaire Albert Johnson and his wife, Bessie. As we progress through the house, our guide, a National Park Service staff member in period costume, unveils the story of the eccentric relationship that underlies the lavish architecture.
Johnson was introduced to the area by Walter Scott, aka “Scotty”. A former stunt rider in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, Scott managed to fool Johnson into funding a non-existent gold mine in the region.
After the ruse was exposed, the two became unlikely friends. At his wife’s urging, Johnson ordered the construction of the Death Valley Ranch in 1922 as their holiday home, which would later host guests as an upmarket B and B. Not that it became known by that name – Scotty’s outlandish personality overshadowed those of the property's true owners and the story got around that he had built the place with the proceeds of his successful gold prospecting. The Johnsons cheekily went along with the misperception, often portraying themselves as mere house guests of the flamboyant Scotty.
The “odd couple” tale of Scotty and Johnson is as fascinating as the house in which it is set. A remarkable confection of the mission revival and Spanish colonial revival architectural styles so popular in California at the time, Scotty’s Castle was built to suit its desert environment.
Its location in Grapevine Canyon took advantage of a nearby spring and cooling was ingeniously provided by tunnels containing wet cloths beneath the house. Fans propelled cool air from these chambers into the building above.
Behind the fanciful turrets and terracotta tiles, a series of beautiful rooms is testament to the Johnsons’ fortune and elegant taste. The main sitting room is a lofty space with a timber ceiling, a mighty chandelier, and tapestries hanging above a stone fireplace for use in the cooler months.
To one side is “Scotty’s Room”, with decor designed to reinforce the notion of Scotty as a devil-may-care adventurer of the desert. On one wall hangs a portrait of Buffalo Bill, Scott’s erstwhile employer.
The joke is on us, it seems, as our guide reveals that Scotty never lived in the house at all, but in a modest hut some kilometres away. Johnson might have found Scotty’s company amusing, but baulked at having it available on a 24/7 basis, it seems.
We cannot help but wonder at the precise nature of their relationship, however. In one room there is a frame holding photos of them, arranged side-by-side: Scotty in a jaunty broad-brimmed hat, facing a prim Johnson in a respectable suit and tie.
Could they have been lovers, we ask the guide, our 21st century antennae attuned to such possibilities.
“Who knows?” she says.
What is known, however, is Bessie’s approval of the friendship. Having been told he would likely die at 40 due to persistent health problems, Albert Johnson lived to the age of 75; a blessing attributed by his wife to the house that provided the setting for the bromance.
From the upper floor, a bridge leads to a detached wing, which contained the guest rooms. Here, we enter a large music room inlaid with colourful tiles. Our guide has a surprise for us – at the flick of a switch, a concealed theatre organ automatically plays the well-known tune The Entertainer.
Ahead of its time, this organ was part of an early home entertainment system. Johnson had plans to enhance the experience by adding a movie projector. Alas, it was not to be. The Wall Street crash of 1929, which ushered in the Great Depression, hit Johnson’s finances hard. At this point, he began to take in guests, sitting quietly alongside them in the sitting room as Scott entertained with his unlikely tales of derring-do. If anyone asked who he was, he would claim to be Scotty’s banker.
Without heirs, the Johnsons left the property to a foundation, which sold it to the US National Park Service in 1970.
Scotty died in 1954, and was buried on the hill overlooking the house that had been indelibly imbued with his name. And a cracking story to go with it.
Tim Richards travelled courtesy of the Nevada Commission on Tourism.
Fiji Airways (fijiairways.com) and its partners connect to Las Vegas from $2000 return ex Melbourne. From Vegas, it is a three-hour drive to Scotty’s Castle in Death Valley National Park.
Atomic Inn, 350 First Street, Beatty, Nevada, theatomicinn.com.
Furnace Creek Resort, 328 Greenland Boulevard, Death Valley, California, furnacecreekresort.com.
Scotty’s Castle, open 8.30am-4.15pm daily, $15 entry, nps.gov/deva.