Death Valley National Park

The History of Death Valley

Death Valley's name came from a party of travelers who, in 1849, made a disastrous short-cut across the region to the California gold fields. Before departing, the survivors cursed the valley and gave it a name, saying: "We took off our hats, and then, overlooking the scene of so much trial, suffering, and death, spoke the thought uppermost in our minds, saying, 'Good-bye, Death Valley.'"

Two decades later, a band of outlaws hiding out in the Panamint Mountains unexpectedly discovered silver in Surprise Canyon. By 1874, Panamint City was a booming mining town with a population of 2,000. Two years later, a flash flood wiped out most of the town. There are similar stories for many of the ghost towns that are scattered throughout the valley: Ballorat, Chloride City, Leadfield, Harrisburg, Greenwater, and Skidoo.

The largest of the mining communities in Death Valley was Rhyolite, whose heyday spanned seven years in the early 1900s. The ruins of Rhyolite are fascinating to visit today. The train depot, jail and bank buildings stand empty in the forbidding Mojave Desert, a testament to the inhospitability of Death Valley.

Death Valley National Park features a 25-room castle at the foot of the Grapevine Mountains.
©2006 National Park Services
Originally named Death Valley Ranch, Scotty's Castle
was built by Chicago millionaire Albert Johnson.

Scotty's Castle
Death Valley may seem an unlikely place for a castle, but it has one: Scotty's Castle, a $2 million, 25-room fairytale palace nestled at the foot of the Grapevine Mountains. The castle was built by a rich Chicago businessman named Albert Johnson. Johnson was an investor in a gold mine set up by Walter Scott, a former prospector, mule wrangler, cowboy, and performer in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Although Scott -- or Death Valley Scotty -- had a number of excuses to explain it, the mine somehow never brought any return.

Johnson traveled to Death Valley to visit the mine, and he and Scotty struck up an improbable friendship. He never actually saw any mine, but the desert weather did wonders for Johnson's health, so he returned often. On the advice of his wife, Johnson built a retreat in an isolated canyon as a place to stay. Construction began in 1925 and continued for some six years until Johnson, rocked by the Great Depression, ran short of funds.

Scotty spent the rest of his long life in the mansion. He died in 1954 at the age of 82 and is buried with his dog on a nearby hillside. The Park Service offers daily tours of the castle. Although never quite finished, it is lavishly appointed with paintings, antiques, chandeliers, and a variety of imported furnishings.

It seems strange that this piece of refinement sits on the rugged land of Death Valley. But as visitors have been discovering for years, Death Valley National Park holds many surprises.

©Publications International, Ltd.

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