Thanks to Kris Moye who asked this very appropriate question recently: “Why is there a castle in Death Valley?” I will begin to answer that question today, and write a little more about it each week. If I do it a little at a time you might not get tired of the subject!
Tom and I are working at Scotty’s Castle for the next three months. After two weeks of training, we are starting to lead tours of the Castle and we know more about the castle than you will ever want to know. Why is there a castle in Death Valley is a good place to start.
Scotty’s Castle was built by Albert and Bessie Johnson in the 1920’s. Albert was a financier and industrialist who lived in Chicago. He was in poor health because of a broken back in 1899 and because of his workaholic tendencies. He had amassed millions, but his health was deteriorating with each passing year. When he visited Death Valley for the first time in 1906, he found out that the climate and “playing cowboy” agreed with him and he felt stronger and healthier than he had for a long time. He began to make annual trips.
He started buying land at the north end of Death Valley in 1915. In 1922 he began building a home out here – it looked like a concrete shoebox. Bessie, his wife, was more accustomed to their Chicago mansion, and she wanted something in a Spanish California style to live in when they were in Death Valley. The house, called Death Valley Ranch by the Johnsons, was completed in 1929 – all that was left to finish was the landscaping, including a million gallon pool and several gardens.
But we all know what happened in 1929 – the stock market crashed. Albert and Bessie Johnson were still millionaires but their millions had been greatly reduced. Albert’s company went into receivership and Albert and Bessie sold their Chicago mansion and moved to Los Angeles. They were closer to Bessie’s family, and they could come to Death Valley more often.
Another problem with finishing the castle was the establishment of Death Valley Monument. In 1931 Albert got a letter from the US government telling him that, due to a surveyors error in 1880, he had bought the wrong land. He had built a $2 million home on land he didn’t own. For the next five years he did legal battle with the government and finally, through an act of congress, was able to buy the land on which his castle sat.
By this time, Albert and Bessie were in their 60’s and they decided not to continue work on the exterior of the home. They continued to come to their castle in Death Valley during the winters until Bessie’s death in 1943.
You may have noticed, as I told this part of the story, that the Johnsons built Death Valley Ranch but it is called Scotty’s Castle. To find out how it came to be called Scotty’s Castle will be revealed in a future blog post.
We are enjoying being in this place. We like our coworkers and are finished with our training. This next week we start to lead tours – another future blog post.