In Death Valley, a Rare 1920s Pickup Rests Peacefully


For the discerning few, an especially fascinating relic at Scotty’s Castle in Death Valley National Park has nothing to do with architecture.

Alongside three other motor vehicles, a rare 1925 Graham Brothers pickup reposes in the castle’s stable. One headlight is missing. So are the half-doors and the two-piece windshield. Naked seat springs sit on the driver’s bench, defying time and the elements that have claimed the cushion.

Park ranger Patrick Taylor says attempts are being made “to slow the decay as much as possible.”

The pickup’s cowl bears the numeral 2 as a testament to the late 1920s, when a fleet of nine vehicles was registered to Death Valley Mercantile Co., the entity created by Chicago millionaire Albert Johnson, lord of Scotty’s Castle.

Years before, Johnson befriended Walter Scott, the notorious former showman known as Death Valley Scotty, who swindled Eastern investors with fictitious gold mines. Asked about the initial construction activity, Scott said he needed “a fancier layout,” and the name Scotty’s Castle stuck.

The Graham Brothers pickup hauled tiles, lumber, bags of cement and plaster, and kegs of nails and bolts from the nearest Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad station in Bonnie Claire, Nev., some 20 miles away over rough roads. After the line closed in 1928, supplies were brought in from Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

The Graham Brothers — Ray, Robert and Joseph — initially manufactured glass in Evansville, Ind. Their enterprise to build truck bodies led to a new manufacturing effort, creating trucks to order starting in 1919. Dodge four-cylinder engines were used, and Dodge dealers sold Graham Brothers trucks after series production got under way.

Ultimately, Chrysler Corp. acquired the make outright, and Dodge trucks were born. The Grahams snapped up Paige Motor Car Co. and conceived Graham-Paige automobiles.

Factories in Evansville, Detroit and Stockton, Calif., produced Graham Brothers trucks. Half-ton models were offered, but a range of heavy-duty models rated as high as two tons.

Milton Nichols, the acknowledged Graham Brothers expert in Graham Owners Club International, saw a photo of the Scotty’s Castle specimen and told, “It’s rather unusual in that it’s a pickup and not a screen-side.”

Nichols said the serial number indicates that assembly occurred in Stockton between December 1925 and April 1926. “It’s certainly at least a one-ton,” he said. “It could be a ton and a half.”

He points out that in 1926, Graham Brothers was America’s largest-volume truck manufacturer. In a 1927 ad, the one-ton chassis was priced at $885. Wooden bodywork would have cost extra. Top speed would have been about 35 mph.

In a subsequent email, Nichols wrote, “It’s a rather interesting pickup truck. I have seen only one other that was about the same.”

A 1928 Ford AA dump truck is the pickup’s nearest companion. Other stablemates are the 1936 Dodge sedan delivery that Scott drove the five miles to and from his house in Lower Vine Ranch and the 1914 Packard seven-passenger touring that belonged to Johnson. In 2010, a fully restored 1914 Packard touring sold at auction for $425,000.

Nichols said the Graham Brothers pickup is hardly worth a fortune. “In unrestored condition, they don’t bring a lot,” he said. Whole ones net between $2,000 and $4,000. He reckoned the Scotty’s Castle pickup would be considered a parts truck and might be worth just a few hundred dollars.

But the National Park Service only intends to preserve, not to restore — and certainly not to sell. Unless it completely crumbles away, the Graham Brothers pickup will continue to stand in place, ably representing the stoicism and invincibility needed for the development of the West.


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