Death Valley Scotty and Scotty’s Castle… The National Park Series

Looking down on Scotty's Castle in Death Valley National Park. This view is looking eastward up Grapevine Canyon. A spring in the Canyon provides water for the Castle and creates the oasis. Our small RV Quivera is peeking out on the far right.

Walter E. Scott was a scoundrel and a showman, a master at bilking rich people out of their money. He was born in Cynthiana, Kentucky in 1872. I may be related.

My Great, Great, Great, Great, Great Grandfather, Andrew Mekemson/Makemson is buried five miles from town. For a time, in the late 1700s and early 1800s, our whole Scotch-Irish clan lived in the area. At one point, Makemsons and Scotts in Harrison County intermarried. Possibly it was with Scott’s family.

Walter didn’t hang out in Cynthiana for long, however. In 1883, at the age of eleven, he split. Some say he ran away. He ended up working as a cowboy with his brother in Nevada.

He must have looked great on a horse. A talent scout for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show recruited him as a cowboy and trick rider when he was 18. For the next 12 years he toured the US and Europe along with such luminaries as Annie Oakley.

In 1902 he discovered his true calling. Walter started selling shares to an incredibly rich gold mine in Death Valley, a gold mine he never quite got around to finding. He became the star of his own Wild West act.  Reinvesting his investors’ money, he travelled from LA to New York City, stayed at the best hotels, spent lavishly, and constantly promoted his non-existent gold mine.

Reporters were attracted to him like buzzards to road kill. And why not… they were guaranteed a great story, free meal and all the booze they could consume. The legend of Death Valley Scotty was born. Rich men lined up to contribute.

In 1905 he pulled off one of his most successful self-promotions. Scotty hired a three-car Santa Fe railroad train to make a record run from Los Angeles to Chicago. The ‘Coyote Special’ made the trip in 44 hours and 54 minutes.

“We got there so fast,” Scotty reputedly said, “ we didn’t have time to sober up.”

His pot of gold was waiting. Albert Johnson lived in Chicago and was Scotty’s opposite. While Scotty was a flamboyant con man and adventurer, Albert was a quiet, highly educated and deeply religious man… not to mention very wealthy. He became excited about the gold mine. Scotty had found his meal ticket for life.

Eventually Albert visited Death Valley to see the mine. Or possibly he came out to see why there were no returns on his investment. Scotty saddled up and took him on a strenuous wild goose chase through the desert. It was risky. Albert was not a healthy man and the trip could have killed him. The opposite happened. His health improved and he came to love Death Valley.

What was even more surprising, he developed a close friendship with Scotty and that friendship was more important than the gold.  Time and again Albert returned to Death Valley. He started bringing his wife Bessie along and she also developed a love for Death Valley and Scotty. But she didn’t like sleeping on the ground.

So Albert offered to build her a castle, which he did. It was an incredible feat given the vacation home’s remote location on the northern edge of Death Valley in Grapevine Canyon. Starting in the Roaring 20s and ending in the Great Depression, it cost two million dollars and took five years to complete.

Any respectable castle requires a turret.

Scotty promptly moved in: not as a guest, not as a renter and not even as a caretaker, but as the owner. He claimed it was his castle built with money from his gold mine. Albert and Bessie went along with their friend’s deception and Besse’s home became know as Scotty’s Castle.

Albert died in the 1940s and left the property to the Gospel Foundation, a charitable organization. But he left it to the charity with a proviso: they had to take care of Scotty, which they did up until his death in 1954.

In 1970 the National Park Service bought Scotty’s Castle from the Gospel Foundation and today’s visitors to Death Valley are welcome to include this beautiful and unique property as part of their adventure. A short walk up the hill behind the castle takes visitors to Scotty’s grave and a great view of the castle.

This blog marks the start of my National Park Series. Beginning in 2000, my wife Peggy and I have visited all of the US’s National Parks. From time to time I will feature our favorites. Over the next two weeks I will be blogging on Death Valley and the surrounding region.

Another view of Scotty's Castle in Death Valley. Note the weather vane on top.

A close-up of the weather vane and my favorite photo of Scotty's Castle. To me, it symbolizes the lonely prospector of the West. All that's missing is a donkey or horse.

A short walk up behind Scotty's Castle will bring you to Death Valley Scotty's grave and memorial. The site also provides a great view of the Castle and surrounding desert.

Scotty's faithful companion, Windy the Dog, is buried beside him. Bone, as in the Peripatetic Bone, stops by for a visit. Bone has been traveling the world for 36 years and has a special place in his heart for graves. No surprise there. He is more careful around live dogs.

A view of the Clock Tower at Scotty's Castle looking out toward Death Valley National Park.

How to Get Lost in Scotland

The Southern Highlands of southwest Scotland are both impressive and beautiful. "Lowlands" don't create waterfalls like these between Thornhill and Moniaive on Highway A 702.

Years ago my father told me that our family came from southwestern Scotland. I was mildly disgruntled. It would make me a Lowland Scot. I wanted to be a Highland Scot, a man of the mountains.

I have just completed a tour of southwest Scotland and I’ve changed my mind. The Southern Highlands produce some quite respectable mountains, or at least high hills, thank you very much.

And the whole area is beautiful.

We started our tour with a day in Edinburgh. Peggy and I, along with her sister Jane and husband Jim, took the train up from Long Eaton, England where we had just completed the narrow boat tour on the Trent and Mersey Canal I wrote about in my last blog.

While Peggy, Jane and Jim explored the city, I worked out our tentative Scotland itinerary. Having travelled a lot, I like to keep my plans flexible. Opportunity may knock.

While I worked on planning our itinerary, Peggy, Jim and Jane did a tour of Edinburgh. This was their tour bus. Could it be more garish?

Edinburg has a lot to offer in sights, however, as this view of Edinburgh Castle suggests.

A cannon view of the Walter Scott Monument looking down from Edinburgh Castle. The writer Walter Scott and poet Robert Burns are highly honored as national heroes in Scotland.

A final view of Edinburgh looking up toward the Nelson Monument (on the left) from Waverley Station. We took the photo while picking up our rental car. Not many parking lots can claim such scenery.

The next day was a parting of the ways. We taxied together to Waverly Station where Jane and Jim had booked a train to London and Peggy and I had reserved a rental car. Quite to our surprise, the rental agency had upgraded us to a brand new Mercedes with a total of two miles on the odometer.

Peggy behind the wheel of our brand new Mercedes rental car. Note both hands grip the steering wheel and Peggy looks slightly wild-eyed as she chants her Scotland driving mantra... left, left, left.

New car or not, I do not recommend left-hand-side-of-the-road driver training in Edinburgh. To start with, the traffic sucks (bad word but applicable). Even more irksome, street names seem to change every block or so. And then there are roundabouts to master. A wrong turn can mean serious dislocation.

Peggy was the driver and I was the navigator. I am happy to report that one of us performed like a pro. Peggy was unflappable.

I, on the other hand, had us hopelessly lost in five minutes. In my defense, the car rental agency had given us two routes out. Both were blocked by construction. By the time we managed to work around street blockades, we had gone beyond the ability of my two downtown tourist maps to save us.

All I could recommend was full speed ahead and damn the double-deckers. An hour later we actually found the road I had intended to have us on in five minutes. Ten minutes later we were admiring the countryside.

A view of the country just outside of Edinburgh on Highway A 702. The square stones in the front of the fence were likely part of/or recycled from an old structure. The yellow flowers are Scotch Broom. Appropriately, I might add. We were to see lots of it.

Our first day’s goal was the small community of Creetown on the Wigtown Bay. Google informed me the trip was 110 miles and would take 2 hours and 47 minutes. But Google hadn’t planned for my extensive tour of Edinburgh, or the detour I took out of Moniaive. I missed a jog left.

Our ample two-lane road became a narrow two-lane road and then a one-lane road with passing pullouts, and then a bumpy one-lane road filled with sheep that behaved like they hadn’t seen a car in months. Maybe they hadn’t…

These two fellows pretty much dominated our bumpy single-lane road, and wondered what we were doing on it.

While we were waiting for our two road companions to decide whether they would bother to move, I took a photo of this fluffy guy. I think he was trying to decide if he should charge.

All’s well that ends well, however. Six hours after leaving Waverly Station we arrived at our B&B in Creetown, the Ellangowan Hotel. It was time for a pint. (Next blog: How in the heck do you pronounce Kirkcudbright?)

Our first nights lodging in the small community of Creetown. Peggy was impressed by our canopy bed that featured lace curtains. I was more impressed with the bar that featured fine Scottish Ale and Indian Curry. Of special note: Most restaurants/pubs we visited in England and Scotland featured at least one Indian dish. Given my love of hot curries, I was one happy camper.