Death Valley National Park is 3.4 million acres of canyons, sand dunes, and extreme desert heat. It’s also home to Scotty’s Castle.
A three-hour drive from Las Vegas, the world-famous castle of the Wild West was built in 1922. Its name was originally Death Valley Ranch, but a charming scam artist named Death Valley Scotty was its real claim to fame.
“Because Scotty claimed credit for it, even though it was never his,” said Abby Wines, Management Assistant at Death Valley National Park. She says Scotty’s Castle actually belonged to millionaire Albert Johnson.
“Albert Johnson came out to Death Valley because he invested in a gold mine. Truth was, the goldmine never existed and Scotty thought he could use the reputation of Death Valley to keep his rich investors at bay,” Wines said.
Scotty told wild tales of flash floods, extreme heat, and even staged shootouts to keep his goldmine fairy tale alive and to keep the money coming in.
When Johnson learned it was all a lie, he didn’t mind because he had so much fun with his new cowboy friend. Johnson later built Death Valley Ranch as a vacation home to enjoy with his wife Bessie and friend Death Valley Scotty.
“Scotty was part of the attraction. Most of the public thought that maybe he was a scam, but they thought that he would be an interesting story and they had heard about this castle in the desert and didn’t know if it was real. The castle in the desert is real, but Scotty’s goldmine never was,” Wines added.
Johnson later learned that he was building on government land. Now, a window into life in the 20s and 30s, the castle is owned and operated by the National Park Service. It brought in about 100,000 visitors a year until a flash flood caused severe damage in 2015.
Wines said 2.7 inches of rain fell in five hours on the hillsides above the castle on top of half an inch the night before, so the ground was already soaked. Flood water rushed down bringing debris, parts of trees, and rocks. Four feet of mud piled up near one of the oldest buildings on the property.
“We just kept uncovering more and more of how much damage there really was,” Wines said.
Five years later, the canyon is still closed and recovery work is ongoing with help from the Death Valley Natural History Association.
“When you’re dealing with a historic structure like this, that had the kind of impacts it had, you have to make sure you’re not doing any harm when you’re trying to fix it,” said David Blacker, Executive Director of the Death Valley Natural History Association.
The damage is estimated to cost between $55-$75 million dollars, which is more than eight times the annual budget for the entire Death Valley National Park.
Right now, the Natural History Association is offering small, private walking tours of the castle while it is under construction. Tickets are $25 per person and tours are scheduled most Sundays through April 11. Fees from those tours go towards curatorial and artifact work.
“All of the stuff that usually is in the building is the original stuff, you can actually see stuff from the 30s that they actually held,” Blacker added.
The National Park Service is hoping it will be able to welcome the public back to a fully revitalized Scotty’s Castle by December 2022.