By: Hillary Delaney
“Death Valley Scotty” was a man as colorful as his name. Throughout his 82 years, Walter Scott played many roles: adventurer, cowboy, gold prospector, millionaire and talented flim flam man. His most celebrated undertaking was the 1905 record breaking, cross-country run of a train which came to be known as the “Scott Special.”
The train, which consisted of a locomotive engine and three cars, made its way from Los Angeles to Chicago in 44 hours and 54 minutes. The locomotive was changed 18 times throughout the journey, to avoid technical issues, but the equipment was standard. The “Scott Special’s” 2,265 mile run beat the previous record-holder by nearly eight hours, and the record held for over twenty years.
The trip was designed to promote the Big Bell Mine, and was funded by mine owner E. B. Gaylord. Gaylord hoped the spectacle would advertise his mining operation, but he ended up funding the promotion of Walter Scott’s legendary persona. The train was front-page news for three days in papers across the country, and crowds of thousands came out to watch it pass. Legend has it, Scott threw out handfuls of dollar bills to the crowd in Chicago at the trip’s end.
The flamboyant “Death Valley Scotty” has local roots. He was born in 1872, the youngest of six, to George and Elizabeth Perry Scott. They lived near Dry Creek, and differing accounts place his birth in either Boone or Kenton County; the extended family settled in both localities. Modern sources sometimes place Walter's birth in Cynthiana, wher the Scotts moved when Walter was a toddler. Historical news accounts, however place his family in our area at his birth. His mother died when Walter was just a young boy, and George soon remarried. The whole family was well known in the area for their harness-racing skills. This soon came in handy for Walter.
Walter’s thirst for adventure came early; he left Kentucky at the age of eleven, and joined his brothers who were working as surveyors in Nevada and California. A few years later, Walter’s equestrian skills were noticed by a recruiter for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and he was hired. He left the show after 12 years, reportedly die to a disagreement with Bill Cody. In search of a new career, Walter turned his attention to gold prospecting. He began convincing many wealthy investors back East that he held rights to a lucrative gold mine, though a seires of “disasters” seemed to prevent the gold from appearing.
One of his investors, Chicago millionaire Albert Johnson, came west to investigate the operation in person. He joined Scott in Death Valley, and though it was clear that the success of the mine was a ruse, Johnson was charmed by Scott, and they became great friends. The climate of the West was beneficial to Johnson’s poor health, and he built an elaborate 22.000 square foot home in the desert. Scott lived on the property, and promoted it as a tourist destination. Though he never owned the property, a provision was made for him to stay after Johnson's death, and it became known as “Scotty’s Castle.” Walter Scott died in 1954, and is buried on the property, which is now part of the Death Valley National Park.