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Death Valley's underground city of gold: Part one

Death Valley as view from Dante's View
Death Valley as view from Dante's View
Todd DiFronzo

An unimaginable bombshell awaits anyone who obtains the rare book, Death Valley Men, written by Bourke Lee in 1933. The eye-opener is revealed in his final chapter titled, Old Gold.

This hardcover describes in great detail Death Valley's imposing scenery and colorful characters to a new market of folks that came into existence in the 1920's and the 1930's: Automobile tourists.

Bourke Lee's firsthand account of Death Valley is a masterfully worded narrative of an alien landscape chock full of multicolored land carvings featuring smooth to rugged mountains, flat barren mesas, storm-filled canyons and salt-plastered basin floors all mixed together giving any scenery junky a fix of a lifetime.

And in some places, quite the overdose.

But Bourke Lee's book appears to be more than just a spirited platform for bringing Death Valley into the homes of the unaware.

Perhaps, much, much more.

Death Valley, occupied for centuries by the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe, began yielding gold, silver, lead, borax and more, in the mid-to-late 1800's. Many a mining town popped up but soon died, mostly in part from San Francisco withdrawing its monetary support due to the 1906 earthquake and the 1907 national financial panic.

In 1927, Death Valley opened it doors to automobile tourists, allowing people for the first time to experience firsthand another Death Valley resource: Its stunning beauty.

Most Americans had never even heard of Death Valley until automobile club consumers began documenting their travels throughout this ancient and exotic desert passage. With the promise of open-road freedom and an experience of a lifetime to be had, it was not long before Death Valley became a place to retreat to.

And it was not too long before people began bumping into one of the most infamous characters of the Death Valley region, Walter Scott, and his illogically placed mansion, Scotty's Castle.

With the word out, everyone wanted to know more about this man and his preposterous desert mansion. Scotty became just as much a destination as Death Valley itself.

Scotty, who could be the sole subject of a volume of books and not the intent of this article, was a man of many names: performer, con man, self-promoting publicity hog, gold miner, prospector and more.

And when Scotty was asked where he was getting all his money from, he told everyone he had a secret gold mine.

But what made Scotty famous in the early 1900's was his uncanny ability to con investors into backing his allegedly fictitious gold mine claims. And this appears to be backed up in print and by those living in the area.

For instance, miners who knew Scotty, scoffed at that notion of Scotty as a miner or even a prospector. They said if Scotty had a secret mine then it was one in which he mined greenbacks from unsuspecting investors.

And perhaps true to their point, it is said that Scotty duped a Chicago millionaire, Albert Johnson, into supporting his declared secret gold mine. However, when Johnson came to view the investment, he discovered it all to be a ruse, became upset and left the area.

What Johnson does next, according to these other publications, is a bit strange.

A couple years later, Johnson, apparently lacking any real excitement in his life, turned to Scotty for his amusement. He forgave Scotty and they formed a friendship that ultimately led to the building of Scotty's Castle in 1922.

But does it make sense that Johnson could so easily forgive Scotty for ripping him off thousands of dollars. Even to go so far as building a strong relationship with him and constructing a mansion out in the middle of a desert. And in return Johnson only gets amusement.

Something might be amiss here and Bourke Lee appears to be hinting at this.

Although Scotty's dubious reputation is acknowledged by Johnson in the book, there appears to be something lurking just beneath Albert Johnson's tone when he talks about Scotty to others.

Just what is Albert Johnson holding back.

Perhaps, Scotty's notorious con-artist reputation has become the perfect cover-up story to hide a secret gold mine. One that holds ancient nine-foot mummies, gold artifacts, gold weapons and shields, leather aprons, gems and a 86 foot tall statue made of gold.

Next article: The Paiute Legend and the trail to Old Gold.

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