The story behind a ghost gold mine and a mansion in the Mojave
By Wayne Sefton
Tucked away in a dry, sandy Mojave Desert canyon near the Nevada border —“where the hot winds blow and there ain’t no snow”— stands an extraordinary spectacle: a two-story Spanish-style mansion you might expect to see on a ritzy, tree-lined street in the Bel-Air neighborhood of Los Angeles. It was built by an eccentric midwestern millionaire named Albert Mussey Johnson. To find out how such an oddity came about we must first learn something about Albert and his crony Walter Scott.
After the marriage, Albert borrowed $40,000 from his father to invest in a lead-zinc mine in Missouri. When the investment returned a nice profit, Albert approached his father again. “Hey, Pop, let’s go out west an’ check out some mining claims. We might make us some money.”
“Okay,” Pop sputtered, always interested in making a buck, “Let’s do it.” So off they went, rumbling toward the wide-open Western lands on the old Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. But tragedy struck; the train wrecked in Colorado and Pop Johnson was killed. Albert suffered a broken back.
Just as Albert began his recovery, 28-year-old Walter Scott was in New York City taking Ella Josephine Milius as his new bride. Walter was born in Cynthiana, Kentucky to George and Anna Scott. Pa George’s interests focused mainly on two enterprises: making moonshine and raising trotting horses. Thus young Walter spent his early childhood traveling with his family around the harness racing circuit. At age eleven he left home to join his two brothers at a ranch in northeastern Nevada. From there he traveled to the Mojave Desert as part of a crew surveying the California-Nevada border. In 1888, at age 16, he joined Buffalo Bill Cody’s traveling Wild West Show as a stunt rider. Although he stayed with the show for twelve years it was only a seasonal gig, so during the off seasons he would plant himself in the Mojave and pick up an odd job or two. He married Ella in 1900, a year after Albert Johnson’s ill-fated railroad accident.
Meanwhile, Albert’s recovery was progressing smoothly. After regaining his ability to walk, he moved to Chicago to join his father’s former business partner, Edward Shedd. The two men took over some of Pop Johnson’s business interests and ventured into new ones of their own.
One day in 1904, a man calling himself Obadiah Sands appeared in Albert’s office. “Sir, I represent Mister Walter Scott,” Sands chirped, “an’ I’m here with an offer. Mr. Scott is a gold miner in California, out in the Mojave Desert. For an initial investment of twenty-five hundred dollars he’s willin’ to offer you an’ Mister Shedd a two-thirds interest in any new mines he discovers.”
Albert and Edward looked at each other and nodded in agreement, “Sounds interesting. We’ll split the two-thirds interest evenly between us.” So they whipped out their checkbooks and became willing investors in Walter Scott’s mining operation. Unbeknownst to the two businessmen, however, Walter would turn out to be a slick and smooth-talking man who had already conned Julian Gerard, vice president of New York’s Knickerbocker Trust Company, into backing a fictitious Mojave gold mining operation. Gerard had sent Walter some $8,000 in investment money and received not a speck of ore before deciding to write the mine off. “A shitty investment,” he huffed.
Thus Walter turned his attention to those two well-heeled entrepreneurs out in Chicago with a gleam in his eye. Over several months Albert and Edward invested still more money into Walter’s mine, until one day Edward looked at Albert and muttered, “Hey, Albert, you noticed somethin’? We aren’t gettin’ a return on our investment in Walter’s gold diggin’s.”
Albert rubbed his chin and plunged into thought. “By gum, you’re right. I’m gonna go out to the Mojave desert to see what the hell’s goin’ on out there.” So he bought a train ticket to California. Another investor — T. Coleman du Pont — sent a qualified mining engineer to join Albert and verify the worth of the mine. Julian Gerard also sent out an observer to tag along and see if Walter actually had anything to show.
When Walter received notice of their impending arrival he…well, he didn’t have much of a mining operation to show them. The fact was, he didn’t have a damned thing to show them. So he sat down, poured himself a glass of bourbon whiskey and came up with a plan: He would round up his brother and a local pal or two, disguise them as bandits and plant them among the hills and rocks surrounding the would-be site of his mine. The bandits would stage a gunfight and scare the visitors away before they could inspect the site.
The visiting group arrived in February 1906. Walter and his brother Warner affably welcomed them. “Well, well, nice to see you fellers. Have a nice trip? C’mon, let’s go out an’ look at the mine.”
Off they went, bumping and rattling over the harsh desert in a horse-drawn wagon. To solve the problem of the mining engineer’s presence, Walter had surreptitiously slipped him some tainted water, rendering him so ill that he had to be tied to the wagon seat. Suddenly, as the party approached a dry stream bed: Bang! Bang! — the bandits opened fire. In the mock gunfight that followed — popularly known as the Battle of Wingate Pass — a wayward bullet struck Warner. “Hold your fire, hold your fire!” cried Walter as he rushed to help his brother. So the shooting stopped. And when the dust settled, the investors peered at each other and fumed. “The son of a bitch duped us,” they sniffed. “We don’t want nothin’ more to do with him or his shenanigans.”
Thus did the Battle of Wingate Pass mark the end of Walter’s ruse with the Chicago investors. Or did it? Albert…well, he still believed that Walter might have found gold. When he got back to Chicago he hired a man named MacArthur and told him, “Mac, I want you to go out to the Mojave Desert an’ follow Walter Scott day an’ night. I wanna know if he’s really got a gold mine.”
When Mac arrived in the Mojave, Walter once again was prepared: He’d planted some chunks of gold ore in an old mineshaft. But the ploy failed to fool the sharp-eyed MacArthur. He fired off a telegram to Albert: NO MINE. NO GOLD. WALTER STORY ALL BULLSHIT.
But doggone it, Albert still clung like a leech to his conviction: Walter must’ve found some gold somewhere out there in the Mojave. So he began making trips out to California himself, hoping Walter would someday show him the promised gold mine.
Lo and behold, Albert began to enjoy Walter’s company — gold or no gold. He even bought property in the Mojave’s Grapevine Canyon and in 1916 built a small shack that he and Walter — whom he now called “Scotty”— could use for camping.
After several of these desert outings with Scotty, Bessie grew curious. “What are you two doin’ out there, chasin’ jackrabbits? You haven’t brought back a single ounce of gold!” So she began to accompany Albert on his Mojave camping forays. But dear Bessie couldn’t bring herself to appreciate the Mojave way of life. “Albert, I don’t fancy sleepin’ on the ground like a goddamned lizard. An’ I don’t fancy livin’ in a dirty tent or two-bit shack.”
“Okay, Bessie dear, we’ll fix that.” Albert hired a pair of architects and a construction engineer and told them, “Design and build us a nice mansion.”
“What?” they gasped. “A mansion? Out here in this scrubby wasteland?”
“Yep.” To accommodate a capacious structure Albert bought more land, bringing the total size of his desert holdings to some 1,500 acres. By 1929, a 32,000-square-foot Spanish colonial-style compound — with two tall towers poking skyward from the main structure — had risen in Grapevine Canyon. While the builders were hammering and sawing and banging away Walter cheerily told his pals and anybody else listening, “I’m buildin’ this here castle with money from my secret gold mines.”
Unfortunately, the surveyors had botched it: The mansion actually sat on land owned by the government; Albert’s legal property lay farther up the canyon. So the builders lay down their tools, sighed, scratched their heads and waited for the issue to be resolved.
It was during this 1929 slack period that an unforeseen new obstacle arose: the stock market crashed. Albert lost a considerable chunk of his wealth. Like a cruise liner run aground, work on the mansion, costing over $2.5 million thus far, came to a halt. And that’s how it stays to this day — unfinished.
Albert died in 1948. He left the mansion to the Gospel Foundation, a charity he’d established two years earlier. Walter? He died in 1954 and lies buried just as he’d wished — on a hill above the “castle” he fancied as his own.
Today the unfinished structure is not just some rich man’s folly flaking and crumbling in the harsh desert environment. The U.S. National Park Service bought the mansion in 1970 and funded a few marginal upgrades. Scotty’s Castle is now a favorite tourist attraction in Death Valley National Park.
Did Walter ever acquire a legal interest in a genuine gold mine? Nope. What about in the mansion itself? Nope. Did Albert die still believing that Scotty harbored a secret gold mine? We may never know.
Wayne Sefton has served as a script consultant for David Marks, a documentary filmmaker whose work includes films for the BBC and PBS Frontline. He is currently working on a book-length project titled ‘History With A Smile’.