Thus began the adventures of William Henry Schmidt and the extraordinary tunnel that became his legacy.
Schmidt was born in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, in 1871 and came to California in the 1890s. He moved to the area known as Garlock (now a ghost town) in the El Paso Mountains, and filed mining claims. The only access to his claims was via a rugged canyon trail, fit only for burro travel. He bought two burros and thereafter was known as Burro Schmidt.
Instead of hauling ore from his mine down the rugged canyon trail, Schmidt decided to dig a tunnel through the granite mountain to meet up with Borax Road, which ran from Death Valley to Mojave through the Rand Mountain area and the El Paso Mountain Valley. His drilling, blasting, and picking commenced in 1900. He labored completely alone, carrying rock out of the tunnel on his back and in his wheelbarrow before eventually installing steel rail tracks and an ore car. His track leveling method was a basin of water on the mine rails, and today the tunnel is dead straight for 2,000 feet, with a sharp turn at the end.
The tunnel was bored through solid granite and required no shoring, except at the entrance. Work progressed slowly. Schmidt built a cabin near the tunnel to be closer to his work, and at some point the tunnel mutated from a moneymaking mining venture into a strange obsession. Schmidt would hire out on Kern River ranches during the summer months in order to generate income to support his tunneling.
In the 1920s, a good road was constructed through lower Last Chance Canyon to the Dutch Cleanser Mine at Cudahy Camp near his tunnel. It connected with the rail line from Mojave. Schmidt was in his 50s, and for most folks, this would have been reason enough to stop tunneling and get on with mining. But this wasn’t reason enough for Burro Schmidt. He continued tunneling until 1938, when daylight was finally visible through the far side of his tunnel. He had made his way out of the mountain on the south side, where he had originally planned to carry his ore out of the tunnel and down to Mojave for assaying. But this never came to pass.
Sixty-seven years old, stooped and gnarled from 38 years of work, Schmidt had tunneled through 2,087 feet of solid granite, using only a pick, a shovel, a four-pound hammer, and explosives. Burro Schmidt never used the tunnel to transport ore. He sold his claim to another area miner, Mike Lee, and moved elsewhere in the El Paso Mountains. “I never made a damn thing out of it,” Schmidt said.
Burro lived another 16 years. He died in January of 1954 at the age of 83 and is buried in the nearby Johannesburg Cemetery. The tunnel has since been entered into the National Register of Historic Places and became a popular area attraction, even earning a spot in Ripley’s Believe it or Not.
Various caretakers watched over the site until a dispute over ownership arose with the Bureau of Land Management. Most of his cabin is still standing, but there has been some awful vandalism to this superb example of American history. Don’t let the act of some thoughtless vandals stop you from visiting though—this is still a fascinating place to explore.
There are several other interesting stories involving Burro Schmidt and his tunnel that are worth sharing.
Burro was a very frugal man, saving a penny wherever he could. He did most of the work by hand and saved the explosives for the toughest of rock. To maximize his supplies, Schmidt would cut the fuses short. Once the fuse was lit, he would sprint for his life toward the tunnel opening and hurl himself to the ground to avoid being hit by rock debris and the force of the blast. Sometimes he either cut the fuses too short, or he didn’t run fast enough, because he would show up injured at another prospector’s cabin.
When he had extra cash, Schmidt used kerosene lamps. When kerosene became too expensive for his budget, he resorted to candles, but limited himself to one two-cent candle each day.
While most people, including Burro himself, said he never mined any ore, some said he took out 20 tons of ore averaging $60 a ton in gold, silver, copper, iron, molybdenum and tungsten. Even more intriguing is the story claiming he stashed ill-gotten high-grade ore in a secret side passage, and the whole tunnel project was a front for his illegal gains.
Visiting Burro’s Tunnel
My wife and I visited the tunnel in early November when the temperature hovered in the low 70s under sunny skies. We dropped our travel trailer alongside State Highway 14 in the Dove Springs area north of Mojave. This is a popular ORV area with an abundance of places to camp free on BLM land. We proceeded toward the tunnel with our truck and my wife’s ATV in the back. About halfway to Burro’s place, we parked the truck and continued in the ATV. The road passes many historic sites on the way and traverses the corner of Red Rock State Park and the upper reaches of scenic Last Chance Canyon.
After checking our map and watching for the occasional sign, we arrived at Burro’s cabin. Then we walked around, trying to imagine the lonely life Burro spent there. We saw a stern warning to those that might want to further vandalize the site—just southwest of the cabin are two crosses in the ground, one marked thief and the other marked robber.
Jumping back on the quad we continued up and around the shoulder of the mountain and arrived at the north portal of the tunnel. We came upon a couple who had already walked a mile through the tunnel and back. They briefed us on what we should watch for in the tunnel, including a resident pack rat. We also exchanged information on the routes we had traveled to the site, and they had a much more detailed map than the one we had been using.
We then proceeded into the tunnel, and it was pretty much as described. There are two side tunnels, one is blocked with a large steel door. Could this be where Burro kept his secret stash, I wondered? Peering through a small hole in the door revealed it to be a storage area for the BLM. The second side tunnel snakes left and right as the ceiling continually gets lower, and I was stooped over at my waist before finally reaching a dead end. I had a crick in my back from walking through this section; I can only imagine the backache this caused Burro while digging it.
After the second side tunnel, we encountered the home of the pack rat. I was disappointed that he didn’t come out to greet us. However, my wife was not offended by his anti-social behavior. Shortly after the rat house, we exited from the far end of the tunnel back into the desert sun. Now we had a decision to make: We could turn around and go back through the tunnel the way we came or we could return over the top of the mountain. We decided it would be more efficient to return in the daylight. Wrong! Burro Schmidt had it right when he decided it would be easier to transport ore through the mountain rather than over it.
The trail back to the starting portal was steep and hard to follow. At the top of the ridge we became temporarily disoriented and briefly thought about going back down the hill to return to where we started via the tunnel. But then we spotted Burro’s cabin below, which provided us with the reference point we needed to return to our starting point. Imagine my surprise when arriving at our ATV I saw the map of our fellow explorers tucked between the seat and gas tank of our ATV. While I can’t thank this couple in person, I can recognize their act of kindness by “paying it forward” and sharing their map with the readers of this magazine.
We spent the balance of our daylight exploring some of the other historic sites in the area, taking in its scenic beauty and pondering the life and times of Burro Schmidt.
Now when winter rolls around and you are thinking about how cold and wet it is, go to your doctor and have him prescribe the same treatment Burro Schmidt’s doctor did or as the TV ads would say, “Ask your doctor if the Mojave Desert is right for you?” Side effects may include tanning of the skin, less stress, an increased love of RVing, and if you have an urge to dig a tunnel through a mountain, that’s OK too!
Dave Helgeson, his wife and children promote manufactured home & RV shows in western Washington. They spend their free time traveling and enjoying the RV lifestye.
IF YOU GO
Burro Schmidt’s cabin and tunnel are just east of Red Rock Canyon State Park, which is 120 miles north of Los Angeles and 25 miles from the town of Mojave. For those of you with GPS receivers, you will find the tunnel at: N 35 24.670 W 117 52.450. The best time to visit is fall through spring. Summer can be very hot. Take a flashlight or two.
The nearest developed campground is Red Rock State Park on Highway 14 near Cantil. The campground is tucked up against the base of dramatic desert cliffs, with 50 primitive campsites, potable water, pit toilets, fire rings and tables. You must bring your own wood or purchase it from a ranger, and there are no hookups or showers. Camping is first-come, first served; there is no reservation system. Camping is $12 per night per site or $10 per night for seniors (62 or older). There is a 30-foot maximum on RVs, and a dump station is available for $5. You can check out the campground online at www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=631 or call the Mojave Desert Information Center at (661) 942-0662.
If you prefer a roomier campsite, you can set up camp on most BLM land in the area for free. Contact the BLM Ridgecrest Field Office, 300 S. Richmond Road, Ridgecrest, CA 93555. Phone (760) 384-5400.