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 The Con Who Would Be King

Park rangers in period dress recreate life in Death Valley in 1939

DEATH VALLEY, CALIFORNIA—

The carved wood sign over the door says "Death Valley Ranch," but you won't find the designation on any current map. It's been "Scotty's Castle" ever since a Los Angeles newspaper reporter coined the phrase back in the thirties. Walter "Scotty" Scott had beguiled the writer with colorful tales of how his success at gold mining had turned him into Death Valley's biggest tycoon. He even claimed that "his castle" was built directly over his lucrative lode.

It was all a tale of the tallest kind, as visitors to Death Valley National Park's manmade wonder discover when they take the guided tour. The turreted edifice wasn't Scotty's at all, but the estate of a wealthy Chicago insurance magnate, Albert Johnson. An unlikely friendship blossomed between the businessman and the Death Valley desert rat, and the castle in Grapevine Canyon was the ultimate result.


Scotty's wardrobe

Because the lore of Scotty's Castle is every bit as colorful and fascinating as the building itself, the National Park Service has taken pains to create a "living history" experience for those who take the guided tour. Rangers dress in period costumes and invite visitors to imagine they've stepped back in time to the year 1939, when Albert Johnson and his wife Bessie were in residence at least once a month, and Death Valley Scotty was usually on hand to charm guests— often movie stars— with fabulous tales of the wild west.


The castle's dining hall

Handcrafted tile in the kitchen

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Scotty's Castle is that it is astonishingly intact. Because the estate was bequeathed first to a nonprofit foundation and later acquired by the National Park, all the original furnishing are still in place. Scotty's clothing still hangs in his bedroom along with his signature hats, red neckties, and photographs of his idols, Buffalo Bill and P.T. Barnum. A vintage theater organ with over a thousand pipes still plays in one of two music rooms, and the dining table is set with custom-made Italian dinnerware. All the other rooms boast handmade tiles and furnishings worthy of museums, like the collection of pristine Shoshone Indian baskets in the Johnsons' sitting room and the fourteenth-century carved wooden Spanish chest in the guest suite. A custom-made 500-pound wrought iron chandelier hangs over the great hall, which also boasts a two-story beamed ceiling, an enormous stone fireplace, and an equally imposing indoor waterfall.

Technologically, Scotty's Castle is a wonder, too. Spring water was used to power a network of water wheels. Some of the wheels powered machines directly by belt and gear, and others generated electricity to provide lights and refrigeration in the castle.

Nowadays, preserving Scotty's Castle is a massive and expensive challenge. The cookhouse, a separate building, burned down accidentally in 1991, and it will take over half a million dollars to restore it. The existing buildings need structural work, and only half of the necessary environmental control units have been installed. "We're supposed to get the new units this year," said Park Ranger Lesley Gaunt. "We're keeping our fingers crossed."

In the meantime, an American flag still waves from the tallest turret on Scotty's Castle, and a vintage motorcar is parked in the driveway. The millionaire and the con man are gone, but their stories still echo in the palace their unusual friendship created.

Megan
3/01

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