Death Valley Scotty’s Wild Ride

Walter E. Scott (1872-1954) was famous for being famous. Known to the world as Death Valley Scotty, he was a relentless self-promoter.  For forty years he conned the gullible with tales of hidden desert gold mines.  And Chicago played a singular role in establishing his legend.

In 1905 Scott was reckoned to be a wealthy but eccentric miner. On July 8 he walked into the Los Angeles office of John Byrne, the Santa Fe Railroad’s assistant traffic manager.  “I’ve been thinking some of taking a train over your road to Chicago,” Scott told Byrne. ”I want you to put me in there in forty-six hours.”

Death Valley Scotty

No train had ever made the 2265-mile LA-to-Chicago run in less than fifty-one hours. Byrne did some calculating, and said that the railroad could meet Scott’s schedule. The price for the chartered train would be $5500—about $160,000 in today’s money.  With that, Scott pulled out a wad of $100-bills and paid the fare.  Byrne said the train would be ready the next day.

That’s the way the story is usually told. Scott never did say why he wanted to get to Chicago so fast.  What is known is that the Santa Fe was then in cut-throat competition with two other roads, and losing.  Setting a new speed record would be great publicity.  Most likely, Byrne and Scott had been cooking up the plan for some time.

At 1:03 p.m. on July 9, a crowd of a thousand people watched the three-car Scott Special steam out of Santa Fe’s La Grande Station. An enhanced crew of fifteen men was on board.  The passengers were Scott, his wife Ella, a Santa Fe publicity man, a newspaper reporter, and a stray yellow dog.

The L.A. dispatcher telegraphed ahead to clear the track for the special. Arrangements were made to have relief engines and engineers ready at intervals of approximately 120 miles.  An entire change-over to a fresh machine and a fresh man took only about three minutes

The trip went smoothly. The one mishap occurred in Kansas, when a cylinder blew on the engine. After a slight delay for this unexpected change-over, the special was moving again.  By the time it crossed the Mississippi into Illinois, it was an hour ahead of schedule.  Over one three-mile stretch, the special sustained a reported speed of 106 mph, faster than any steam-driven train had ever traveled.

All throughout the trip, the on-board reporter telegraphed dispatches on the special’s progress. Newspapers throughout the country ran the story.  Heavy gambling was booked on whether or not Scott’s train would beat the forty-six-hour mark.

Chicago eagerly awaited the special’s arrival. Rumor said that Scott never tipped less than $10, and was known to pass out $100-bills if the mood struck him.  Cornelius Shea, president of the teamsters’ local, was especially interested in meeting the “millionaire miner.” “He does not know what to do with his money,” Shea told a reporter.  “I know what to do with a bunch of it if he will give it to me.”

The Tribune’s front page cartoon—July 11, 1905

The Scott Special chugged into Dearborn Street Station at 11:57 a.m. CST on July 11, 1905, 44 hours and 54 minutes after its departure from Los Angeles. A cheer went up from the thousands of people present as Scott stepped off the train. One woman rushed forward and kissed him.  “Ladies and gentleman,” Scott shouted to the crowd.  “I’m glad to see you . . .” But the rest of his words were drowned out by more cheers.  Then Scott, his wife, and the yellow dog were off to the Great Northern Hotel.

During the next two days, reports trickled out that the “free-spending” Scott was hanging on to his supposed fortune. Salesmen, inventors, investment brokers, and everyday pan-handlers were turned away from his suite empty-handed.  The largest amount he parted with was a 30-cent tip to the room service waiter.

Then, on July 13, Scott was off to New York on “new business.” He was accompanied by the yellow dog.  Mrs. Scott joined them several days later.

Today we know that Walter Scott’s gold-mine boasts were nothing more than desert hot air. But that 1905 record train run was one time he was as good as his word.


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