Archive for April, 2012

“This would just be a rich man’s vacation house if it weren’t for the stories,” said the park ranger.

We were standing in a rather grand house plunked down in the north end of Death Valley National Park’s three-million-plus acres of desert scrub and mountain ranges.  See the vegetation in the corner of the photo below?  That’s why the house is here; spring water flows at over 200 gallons a minute downhill toward this location.

Death Valley Ranch, a.k.a. Scotty's Castle

And the stories?  Tales of near-death experiences, fortunes won and lost, water rights skullduggery, con men and cowboys, one man who was both…

"I've seen Hearst Castle," said the ranger, "and I think Scotty's Castle is a bit more...tasteful."

Albert Johnson, born into an extremely wealthy family, studied engineering at Cornell University, met his future wife Bessie there, and married her after they graduated.  He borrowed money from his father to invest in a mine and turned it into his own huge fortune.  In 1899, on a trip out west with his father to inspect other mines to invest in, Albert survived a horrific train crash that killed his father and left Albert with a broken back.  He made a miraculous recovery and moved to Chicago to take over his late father’s business interests.  He and his dad’s partner bought the National Life Insurance Company and Johnson was soon raking in a million dollars a year from that company alone (about $25 million a year in today’s money).  He had the money to indulge his whims, and one of those was investing in mines.

Love that weathervane...

Enter part-time cowboy and full-time con artist Walter Scott, a.k.a. Death Valley Scotty, selling shares of his non-existent gold mine to wealthy investors like Albert.  When there were no returns on the investment, Albert headed west to find out why.  He ended up hanging out with Scotty, sleeping in the desert, cooking over campfires, playing cowboy and loving it.  He’d return year after year, sometimes accompanied by Bessie, who grew tired of vacationing in a shack; Albert started building her a house in 1922.

Nobody uses the official name above the door 🙂

By this time, adventurous people were traveling to Death Valley and would end up knocking at the door.  Johnson, a private, eccentric man, was happy to let Scotty tell everyone that he, Scotty, was the owner of the house.  Scotty would sit on his “throne” built into an alcove in the living room and regale visitors seated before him with preposterous stories.

The two-story living room has lots of leather couches for the visitors who'd gather to hear Scotty's tall tales

Scotty claimed he built the house right above his gold mine so he could protect his property.  Albert Johnson, hiding nearby, would give the signal to his servants in the kitchen, who would bang on pots and pans.  “Hear that?” Scotty would say.  “That’s my men down below, mining my gold for me!”

Fringed, tooled-leather curtains keep out the desert sun

As always, I’m interested in some of the little details:

European artisans crafted custom metalwork. Tiles came from local sources and Spain.

There were metal air vents built into the outside walls for ventilation.  Scotty would tell visitors these were for his shotgun, so he could shoot bad guys trying to break in.

Albert Johnson must have had quite a crew of metalworkers on the job

Scotty could talk your ear off, but so could Albert’s wife Bessie.  She was a religious woman who had been a preacher.  All household help had to sign an employment contract agreeing to listen to Bessie’s sermons every Sunday, their day off.  What they didn’t know was that Bessie’s sermons lasted five hours!

The music room was filled with instruments that played themselves. like this piano. I'll bet the hired help would have preferred to be here... 🙂

There is also an underground tour that shows visitors the nuts and bolts of running this house.  Albert Johnson (who studied engineering in college) didn’t invent any of the technology he installed; he used what was available in the 1920’s.  This included electricity generated through a Pelton water wheel mechanism.  Hope you can read this:

Here's the description of how electricity was generated and stored

A Pelton water wheel is on the left:

The park ranger is in 1920's clothing because a park with costumed rangers gets to keep all the money generated BY the park FOR the park

There was a solar water heater as well (now decommissioned because people were stealing the copper).

The Great Depression put an end to the building improvements, and also put an end to Johnson’s fortune.  After much wrangling over property boundaries, water rights, etc., he got to keep the house, but his business interests all went bust.  Nevertheless, he died at 75 and attributed his long life to the desert climate and the happiness he found there.

Friends would tell him, “You know Scotty’s a thief, and a liar, and he’s stolen from you, don’t you?”  He would reply, “I have received much more entertainment value from Scotty than I paid for.”

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So, let me back up a bit from my last post.  On the way into Death Valley from the south, we ate breakfast at the Mad Greek in Baker (all those truckers can’t be wrong, and they weren’t), then drove up 127 to Death Valley Junction, hung a left and said, “Whoa.” We stopped at the Amargosa Opera House, which doesn’t look as if it’s been an opera house for quite some time — it’s a hotel, but it looked abandoned:

The only sound was the wind

These doors are hidden under the arch in the photo above

Time and heat take their toll...

Desert patina 🙂

There’s a cafe nearby run by a friendly lady from Minnesota.  There’s also a parking lot behind abandoned buildings across the street where people boondock, but we were on our way to Zabriskie Point.  More later…

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I hope y’all have been doing fine during my absence.  The dodgy wireless transmitter was replaced in late February and has been doing fine; it’s the human transmitter who’s been preoccupied…  😉

We went to Death Valley National Park, and I’m finally beginning to understand why some people love the desert — no traffic, no cell phone signal, no internet, no TV — no problem!

Mosaic Canyon, up a washboard road near Stovepipe Wells

Don't these layers of rock, shoved up then eroded by water, look like flowing water themselves?

Mosaic Canyon's beautiful, subtle colors attract photographers

The smooth marble canyon walls feel cold on the skin even on a warm day

So, what do you do for entertainment when you’re not exploring?  You share wine and cheese with your neighbors in the campground.  You share an impromptu potluck with other hikers at the Mosaic Canyon trailhead.  You break out the playing cards, or converse over gin-and-tonics as you watch the sun drop behind the mountains.  Or, if you’re Sweet Pea, you take long naps.

No dogs allowed on the trail. *sigh* Nap time...no hurry, no worry....

Next post:  Scotty’s Castle?  Ubehebe Crater?  Furnace Creek?  Amargosa Opera House?  I haven’t decided.  Watch this space!  🙂

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