Digital-Desert : Mojave Desert Visit us on Facebook -- Desert Gazette -- Desert Link
Intro:: Nature:: Map:: Points of Interest:: Roads & Trails:: People & History:: Ghosts & Gold:: Communities:: BLOG:: Weather:: :?:: glossary
Loafing Along Death Valley Trails

Chapter XIX

Death Valley Scotty

A strictly factual thumbnail sketch of Walter Scott would contain the following incidents:

He ran away from his Kentucky home to join his brother, Warner, as a cow hand on the ranch of John Sparks—afterward governor of Nevada. He worked as a teamster for Borax Smith at Columbus Marsh. He had a similar job at Old Harmony Borax Works.

In the Nineties he went to work with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. He married Josephine Millius, a candy clerk on Broadway, New York, and brought her to Nevada.

He became guide, friend, companion, and major domo for Albert Johnson—Chicago millionaire who had come to the desert for his health. He did some prospecting in the early part of the century, but never found a mine of value.

America was mining-mad following the Tonopah and Goldfield strikes and Scotty went East in search of a grubstake. He obtained one from Julian Gerard, Vice President of the Knickerbocker Trust Company and a brother of James W. Gerard who had married the daughter of Marcus Daly, Montana copper king and who was later U.S. Ambassador to Germany.

Scotty staked a claim near Hidden Spring and named it The Knickerbocker. He gave Gerard glowing reports of a mine so rich its location must be kept secret.

Scotty appeared in Los Angeles unheard of, in a ten gallon hat and a flaming necktie and with the natural showman’s skill, tossed money around in lavish tips or into the street for urchins to scramble over.

This was the well-staged prelude to the charter of the famed Scotty Special for a record-breaking run from Los Angeles to Chicago. Though Scotty stoutly denies it, he was lifted to fame by a big and talented sorrel-headed sports editor and reporter on the Los Angeles Examiner, named Charles Van Loan, and John J. Byrnes, passenger agent of the Santa Fe railroad. Scotty meant nothing to either of these men, but the 131publicity Byrnes saw for the Santa Fe did, and the red necktie, the big hat, the scattering of coins, and the secret mine made the sort of story Van Loan liked.

Here Scotty’s trail is lost in the fantastic stories of writers, press agents, and promoters. Several years afterward when his yarns began to backfire, Scotty swore in a Los Angeles court that E. Burt Gaylord, a New York man, furnished $10,000 for the Scotty Special’s spectacular dash across the continent—the object being to promote the sale of stock in the “secret mine.”

More remarkable than any yarn Scotty ever told is the fact that although headlines made Scotty, headlines have failed to kill the Scotty legend.

You may toss our heroes into the ash can, but we dust them off and put them back. Likable, ingratiating, Scotty will brush aside any attack with a funny story and let it go at that.

In a law suit for an accounting against Scotty, Julian Gerard asserted he was to have 22½% of any treasure Scotty found. Judge Ben Harrison decided in Gerard’s favor, but the only claim found in Scotty’s name was the utterly worthless Knickerbocker and Gerard got nothing. The claim showed little sign of ever having been worked. A few broken rocks. A few holes which could be filled with a shovel within a few moments.

Passing the claim once, I stopped to talk with a native: “This is the scene of the Battle of Wingate Pass,” he told me. “In case you never heard of it, it was fought for liberty, Scotty’s liberty—that is. Gerard got suspicious about Scotty’s mine and decided to send his own engineers out to investigate. He ordered Scotty to meet them at Barstow and show them something or else. It worried Scotty a little, not long. He’d learned about Indian fighting with Buffalo Bill and met the fellows as ordered. When he led them to his wagon waiting behind the depot, the Easterners took a look at the wagon, another look at Scotty and one at each other. The wagon had boiler plate on the sides, rifles stacked army fashion alongside. Outriders with six-guns holstered on their belts and Winchesters cradled in their arms.

“‘Don’t let it worry you,’ Scotty said. ‘Piutes on the warpath. Old Dripping Knife, their Chief claims my gold belongs to them. Dry-gulched a couple of my best men last week.’

“The Easterners turned white and Scotty gave ’em another jolt. ‘Butchered my boys and fed ’em to their pigs. But we are fixed for ’em this trip. They sent word they aim to exterminate us. Maybe try it, but I’ve got lookouts planted all along. Let’s go....’ He shunted them aboard, shaking in their knees and headed out of Barstow.

“The party had reached that hill you see when suddenly out of the brush and the gulches and from behind the rocks came a horde of ‘redskins,’ yelling and shooting. Scotty’s men leaped from their saddles and the battle was on. The Easterners jumped out of the wagon and hit the ground running for the nearest dry wash and that was the closest they ever got to Scotty’s mine. You’ve got to hand it to Scotty.”

The story made front page from coast to coast and it was several days before the hoax was revealed. Unexplained though undenied, was the statement that Albert Johnson was in Scotty’s party listed as “Doctor Jones.” It is assumed that he had no guilty knowledge of the hoax.

The most astounding achievement of Scotty’s career was attained when he interested in an imaginary Death Valley mine, Al Myers, a hard-bitten prospector and mining man who had made the discovery strike at Goldfield; Rol King, of Los Angeles, bon vivant and manager of the popular Hollenbeck Hotel, and Sidney Norman who as mining editor of the Los Angeles Times knew mines and mining men.

These were certainly not the gullible type. But with a yarn of gold, Scotty induced them to hazard a trip into Death Valley in mid-summer when the temperature was 124 degrees.

Scotty may have missed the acquisition of a good mine when he failed to find one lost by Bob Black. While hunting sheep in the Avawatz Range, Bob found some rich float. “Honest,” Bob said, “I knocked off the quartz and had pure gold.” He tried to locate the ledge but he couldn’t match his specimen. Later he returned with Scotty, but a cloudburst had mauled the country. They found the corners of Bob’s tepee, but not the ledge. They made several later attempts to find it, but failed.

Bob always declared that some day he would uncover the ledge and might have succeeded if he hadn’t met Ash Meadows Jack Longstreet one day when both were full of desert likker. Bob passed the lie. Jack drew first. Taps for Bob.

All kinds of stories have been told to explain Albert Johnson’s connection with Scotty. The first and the true one is that Johnson, coming to the desert for his health, hired Scotty as a guide, liked his yarns and his camping craft and kept him around to yank a laugh out of the grim solitude.

But that version didn’t appeal to the old burro men. They could believe in the hydrophobic skunks or the Black Bottle kept in the county hospital to get rid of the old and useless, but not in a Santa Claus like Albert Johnson. “It just don’t make sense—handing that sort of money to a potbellied loafer like Scotty....”

Albert Johnson was able to afford any expenditure to make his 133life in a difficult country less lonely. He could have searched the world over and found no better investment for that purpose than Scotty.

Genial, resourceful, and never at a loss for a yarn that would fit his audience, Scotty was cast in a perfect role. As a matter of fact, whatever it cost Johnson for Scotty’s flings in Hollywood, or alimony for Scotty’s wife, it probably came back in the dollar admissions that tourists paid to pass the portals of the Castle for a look at Scotty. Of course they seldom saw Scotty—never in later years. Mrs. Johnson was an intensely religious woman and didn’t like liquor and that disqualified Scotty.

“This is Scotty’s room,” the attendant would say. “And that’s his bed.”

“Oh, isn’t he here?”

“Not today. Scotty’s a little under the weather. Went over to his shack so he wouldn’t be disturbed....”

Mrs. Johnson was killed in an auto driven by her husband in Towne’s Pass when, to avoid going over a precipice, he headed the machine into the wall of a cut.

In 1939 Albert Johnson testified that he first met Scotty in Johnson’s Chicago office when a wealthy friend appeared with Scotty, who was looking for a grubstake. Johnson said he gave Scotty “something between $1000 and $5000.” When the attorney asked him to be more definite, Johnson replied that at the time, his income was between one-half million and two million dollars a year and the exact amount consequently was of no importance then. “Since then,” Johnson testified, “I have given him $117,000 in cash and about the same in grubstakes, mules, food, and equipment.”

They went together into the mountains as Johnson explained, “because I was all hepped up with his ... claims.” Further explaining his connection with Scotty, he said: “I was crippled in a railroad accident. My back was broken. I was paralyzed from the hips down. Through the years I got to have a great fondness for him.”

Albert Johnson, whose fortune came from the National Insurance Company, died in 1948, leaving a will that contained no mention of Scotty.

But one laurel none can deny Walter Scott. He did more to put Death Valley on the must list of the American tourists than all the histories and all the millions spent for books, pamphlets, and radio broadcasts.

The almost incredible case of Jack and Myra Benson proves that P. T. Barnum was not wholly wrong in his dictum regarding the birthrate of suckers.

Newly married in Montana they loaded their car and set out to seek fortune in the West. “We didn’t know anything about gold,” Jack confided. “If anyone had told us to throw a forked stick up a hillside and dig where it fell, we would have done it.”

Near Parker, Arizona, they were having supper in camp when another traveler stopped and asked permission to erect his tent nearby. Myra invited him to share their supper and during the meal the stranger told them he was a chemist and that he had prospected over most of the West. He had found a clay that cured meningitis, he said, and this had led to fortune. In one town he had found the entire population, including doctors and nurses down and out. The clay had cured them within a week. Among the cured, was the son of a rich woman who had given him $5000.

Grateful for the fate that had brought this man into their lives, the Bensons confided that they had hoped to reach the California gold fields, but car trouble had depleted their cash and asked if he knew of any place where they could pan gold.

“Go to Silver Lake, in San Bernardino County, California,” he advised them, “and your troubles will be over. On the edges of the lake is a thick mud. Get some tanks and boil it. You’ll have a residue of gold.”

Jack and Myra set out over the Colorado Desert; then climbed the Providence Mountains to worry through the deep blow sand of the Devil’s Playground. After three gruelling weeks they reached the lake. There they boiled the mud. Then an old prospector became curious about their unusual performance. The world slipped out from under the Bensons when he told them they were the victims of a liar.

With $5.00 they headed for Death Valley; found themselves broke and gasless at Cave Spring. Jack knocked upon the door of a shack he saw there. The woman who opened the door was Jack’s former school teacher, Mrs. Ira Sweatman, who was keeping house for her cousin, Adrian Egbert—there for his health.

Those who traveled the Death Valley road by way of Yermo and Cave Spring will remember that every five miles tacked to stake or bush were signs that read: “Water and oil.” This was Adrian Egbert’s fine and practical way of aiding the fellow in trouble.

Myra and Jack later acquired a claim near Rhodes Spring, a short distance from Salsbury Pass road into Death Valley and moved there to develop it. I had been away from Shoshone with no contacts and returning was surprised to find Myra there. I inquired about Jack.

“Why, haven’t you heard?” she asked, and from the expression in her eyes I knew that Jack was dead.

As best I could, I expressed my condolence, knowing how deeply she had loved.

She said: “He went up to the tunnel to set off three blasts. I heard only two. He was to come after the third blast. I knew something was wrong and went up. Bigod, Mr. Caruthers, Jack’s head was blown off to hellangone....”

Myra’s language failed to mask the grief her welling eyes disclosed.

Only once in her long, helpful life did Myra ever stoop to deception. The old age pension law was passed and Myra was entitled to and needed its benefits, but Myra wouldn’t sign the application. She made one excuse after another, but finally Stella Brown got at the bottom of her refusal. Myra had been married to Jack for 40 years and just didn’t want him to find out that she was a year older than he. Mrs. Brown at last persuaded her to put aside her vanity.

“Hell—” Jack grinned when told about it. “I knew her age when I married her.”

On cold winter nights Myra could always be found in the Snake House where a chair beside the stove was reserved for her. One night I said jestingly: “You never play poker. What are you doing here?”

She whispered: “Wood’s hard to get. I’m saving mine.”

Then came one of those mornings when one’s soul tingles with the feel of a perfect desert day and Myra was up early. She came to the store.

“What got you up at this hour?” Bernice asked.

“I felt too dam’ good to stay indoors....”

There were a few old timers in the store and these surrounded her—because she was the kind who could tell you that it was hotter than hell, in a thrilling way. She bought a few groceries and started back to her cabin. Friendly eyes followed her passage along a path across the playground of the little school. Children sliding down the chute or riding teeter boards, waved affectionately. Myra was seen to falter in her step, then sag to the sand. The children ran to her aid and in a moment Shoshone was gathering about her. Myra Benson was dead.

Sam Flake, nearing 80, on the fringe of the crowd paid his simple tribute in a voice a bit shaky, but in language hard as the rock in the hills: “Dam’ her old hide—us boys are going to miss Myra....” He turned aside, his hand pulling at the bandana in his hip pocket and Shoshone understood.

Though she was buried 500 miles away, every man, woman, and child in Shoshone wanted a token of love to attend her and about the grave that received her casket was a wilderness of flowers.

A Personal Narrative of People and Places
Published by Death Valley Publishing Co.
Ontario, California

A Foretaste of Things to Come
What Caused Death Valley?
Aaron and Rosie Winters
John Searles and His Lake of Ooze
But Where Was God?
Death Valley Geology
Indians of the Area
Desert Gold. Too Many Fractions
Romance Strikes the Parson
Greenwater-Last of the Boom Towns
The Amargosa Country
A Hovel That Ought To Be a Shrine
Sex in Death Valley Country
Shoshone Country. Resting Springs
The Story of Charles Brown
Long Man, Short Man
Shorty Frank Harris
A Million Dollar Poker Game
Death Valley Scotty
Odd But Interesting Characters
Roads. Cracker Box Signs
Lost Mines. The Breyfogle and Others
Panamint City. Genial Crooks
Indian George. Legend of the Panamint
Ballarat. Ghost Town
Intro:: Nature:: Map:: Points of Interest:: Roads & Trails:: People & History:: Ghosts & Gold:: Communities:: BLOG:: Weather:: :?:: glossary
Country Life Realty
Wrightwood, Ca.
Mountain Hardware
Wrightwood, Ca.
Canyon Cartography
Links to Desert Museums

Grizzly Cafe
Family Dining

Custom Search

Abraxas Engineering
These items are historical in scope and are intended for educational purposes only; they are not meant as an aid for travel planning.
Copyright ©Walter Feller. 1995-2023 - All rights reserved.