Snowbird haunts: “Burro” Schmidt’s tunnel

Snowbird haunts: “Burro” Schmidt’s tunnel

By Bob Difley

Editor’s note: As summer draws to a close, the RV snowbirds are beginning to think about their winter getaways. Need a little help with stops along the way to broaden your horizons? Here’s the first of our occasional posts of places to see, things to do in the warmer-during-winter areas of the country. 

William Henry Schmidt, born in 1871 in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, possessed none of the qualifications to become a high desert prospector. However, having a family history of tuberculosis, and following the orders of his doctor, he came west and took a job in California with the Kern County Land Company in the Mojave Desert.

By 1906 he had filed some claims of his own in the Copper Mountains. He had one problem: How to transport the ore from his claims to the distant smelter. It required building miles of roads around the mountain, or …
 
What started as an idea, to carve a tunnel right through the mountain to the Borax road that connected Death Valley with the town of Mojave, grew into a life-long obsession. Working with only a hand drill and a four-pound hammer, Schmidt hacked away at the solid granite mountain carving out a five-foot wide and seven-foot tall shaft. With his only friends and constant companions, Jack and Jenny, two faithful burros from which he received his name “Burro,” they transported the tons of debris from his diggings.
 
To finance his project he worked summers on surrounding ranches, but spent his winters living in his cabin, built with scrap lumber, working on his tunnel. When he was only half-way through the mountain, the railroad was completed through the valley along with convenient access roads. The purpose of his tunnel had become obsolete.
 
But Burro, instead of starting to work his claims, making use of the railroad to transport his ore, kept digging, and digging. Had this obsession pushed him to the brink of sanity? Or, as the rumor spread, had he discovered the Crystal Room, a lost pocket of rich gold ore? Was he using the digging of his shaft as an excuse to stay up on the mountain extracting a fortune from this lost lode?
 
Burro continued working on his shaft, 1600 feet straight through the mountain, where he made an abrupt turn and punched through the other side after 38 years, at the age of 68. His dedication achieved for him his moment of glory, an article in Time magazine and an acknowledgment by Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.
 
In his lifetime he sold only 20 tons of ore valued at $60 a ton — $1200 for the incredible amount of earth he removed from the tunnel. Yet when he died, $2700 was found hidden beneath a windowsill in his cabin and caches of gold nuggets have turned up from time to time around his mine and cabin. Some old-timers claimed to have seen Burro’s Crystal Room that he purportedly blasted shut upon the completion of the tunnel.
 
Access to the tunnel, which you can see and walk through, is by dirt roads either from Hart’s Place on Route Six or through Last Chance Canyon from Cantil. Camping is available at nearby Red Rock Canyon State Park, 25 miles north of Mojave on Route 14. Further directions to Burro Schmidt’s tunnel and a map are available from a ranger or from the park’s visitor center. Here’s a vicinity map:
 
Google maps.

You can find Bob Difley’s RVing e-books on Amazon Kindle.

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One thought on “Snowbird haunts: “Burro” Schmidt’s tunnel

  1. Marilyn

    You can also see signage from Hwy 14 – look for the huge roadside advertisements for Mammoth and you will see the small wood sign for the tunnel as you head south.
    Another neat place in the area is Fossil Falls. This is located about 20 miles north of Inyokern on the east of Hwy 14.

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