Monday, December 3, 2012

Photo Essay: Scotty's Unfinished Castle



Walter Scott was Death Valley's most famous and celebrated resident, drawing tourists out to his famous "castle" to meet him and hear him tell a tale or two about his gunslinging days with Buffalo Bill, racing trains, melting chinaware, discovering gold, and rescuing old ladies on the side of the road.



Even after his death in 1954 - twenty years after his home became part of designated parkland - people have come from all over to see where Death Valley Scotty once lived.



Too bad he never actually lived here, nor did he build it or even own it.



You can't tell the story of Death Valley Scotty without mention of Albert Johnson, a Chicago engineer and businessman who invested in Scotty's gold mine. But when he came out to Death Valley to see it for himself, he discovered that Scotty was a fraud whose elaborate gold rush scheme was all a hoax.

Or was it?

Intrigued by the prospect of gold somewhere in Death Valley, charmed by this tall tale-telling cowboy, and poor health healed by the desert, Johnson set his sights on a plot of land in the Grapevine Canyon region, whose plentiful springs would make it a good homestead. Although not much more than a simple shack had been built on it already, there was a farm and orchard on the land when Johnson first bought it, making the area a true oasis in the middle of the hot, barren desert.



Upon his purchase, Johnson began to build Death Valley Ranch, an elaborate winter home for himself and his wife, a wealthy couple who were accustomed to mansion living back in the Midwest.  The resulting and sprawling estate featured the Hacienda guest quarters (where park staff now reside)...



...stables...



...(which now house a collection of historic cars and wagons)...



...and, of course, the stately castle itself, built first as a simple poured concrete rectangular box, and then expanded and elaborated into a Spanish Renaissance estate...



...with a Westminster chiming tower...



...and elaborate tilework and fountains.



Too bad it's unfinished.



Johnson had grand plans for a record-breakingly huge swimming pool, 13 feet deep, with a bridge and underground observation deck...



...as well as a courtyard and garden...



...when the government's surveyors intervened and claimed that Johnson was building on land he didn't actually own. Although they allowed him to eventually buy back his land after he halted construction on the property (literally pulling workers off his front porch while on duty), by the time the stock market crashed at the onset of the Great Depression, Johnson decided not to start building again and leave it in its current state.



Still, there's plenty of opulence to behold at the ranch...





...on the exterior and interior (including the pièce de résistence inside the turret, but more on that later)...



...of the place Johnson very much shared with his dear friend Scotty.



Despite being initially duped by him, Johnson became so close to Scotty that he even carved his initial together with his own throughout the house: sometimes J / S, sometimes S / J, but always Johnson and Scotty, together, at the castle that Johnson built.

Stay tuned for photos of the interior of Death Valley Ranch (which has become known as Scotty's Castle), Johnson's underground lair (which may or may not house Scotty's famed gold mine), and the ranch Scotty actually called home.

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