Burro Schmidt and His Tunnel
High atop the El Paso Mountains, above Last Chance Canyon, exists today a monument to one man's determination and perseverance. William Henry Schmidt, better known as "Burro" Schmidt, spent 38 years accomplishing the task of hand-drilling a tunnel nearly a half-mile long. Over those 38 years Burro Schmidt worked summers in the Kern River valley on farms as a ranch hand. He would take his earnings in the fall, and with his burros, invest in flapjacks, coffee and beans, and supplies in Johannesburg, at Teagle's store. Schmidt would then head off to his tunnel to work through the fall and winters. With a single jack hammer, and dynamite, Schmidt accomplished his self-appointed task of burrowing through the mountain. Schmidt didn't stop to explore the veins of copper, gold, and quartz he encountered, he drove straight through. His intention early on was to provide easy transportation to the railroad for his ore, as no roads through to the other side's valley and railroad then existed. Schmidt had also mined in Last Chance Canyon with Walt Bickel on a claim nearby, according to Walt's friends. Burro Schmidt staked Copper claims called the Copper Basin claims, in the hills above Last Chance Canyon. He was 36 years old when he started his tunnel, and was 68 when he finished. In the first three months after finishing the tunnel, he took out 20 tons of ore averaging $60 a ton in gold, silver, copper, iron, molydenum and tungsten. Schmidt drilled his entire tunnel with a 4 pound single jack hammer. His drill steel was of whatever section and size he could find. He would drill only two holes 3 or 4 feet deep in the tunnel face, and use 40 percent dynamite with fuses and detonating caps. He could not afford kerosene, and purchased candles at 3 for 5 cents. He made one candle last an entire day. The digging and hauling of material was completely hand done, filling and pushing the ore cart by hand.His track leveling method was a bowl of water on the ore cart track he put down, and today the tunnel is dead straight for two thousand feet, with a sharp turn at the end before the exit high above Koehn Lake and Cantil. The view of Randsburg and the Rand Mountains, with San Jacinto on a clear day is beautiful. At the entrance side of the tunnel, the view of the southern Sierras, Scodies, Black Mountain, and Walker Pass, with Bickel Camp at your feet, is a great view as well.
Schmidt was born at Woonsocket, R.I., January 30, 1871, about 17 miles from Providence. He had three sisters and three brothers that never reached the age of 30 years. All 6 died of consumption. He came to California in 1895, worked for two years with the Kern County Land Company, returned home, and then in 1900 returned to California for good. When Schmidt started his tunnel it was 1906, the year of the San Franciso fire, and also when Death Valley Scotty made his famous fast run east in a special train. Schmidt never married, afraid of passing the consumption on to his offspring. His only companionship were his two burros which he used only for hauling his buckboard for supplies, water and fuel. He never used his burros in the mine. Burro Schmidt passed on just a few days short of his 82 birthday in 1953. As he neared the end of his lifelong undertaking, Burro Schmidt offered his tunnel to the University of California for their studies of mineralogy, a noble gesture. News of his accomplishment was carried in many papers and magazines. Time magazine had an article on him as did many other magazines. Schmidt was entered into "Ripley's Believe it or Not" as the "human mole". Burro Schmidt lived in a small one room cabin with newspaper and magazine clippings on the walls for insulation. On his small stove he figured he'd cooked 25,000 meals mostly of pancakes and beans. Schmidt was friends with Walt Bickel, who acted as a pallbearer as well at the funeral held at the tunnel entrance.
The tunnel was entered into the list of Historic Sites, and became a popular area attraction. In his last years, Burro Schmidt gave his interest in the tunnel to Mike Lee who after a few years passed on, and Toni Seegar purchased the claims from the county seat in Bakersfield. How the county of Kern sold an unpatented mining claim is uncertain, but Toni soon was living next to Burro Schmidt's cabin, and fixed up Lee's cabin with full amenities. Water was provided with a well and pump, power was generator driven. Toni moved into the cabin in the early 60's, while President Kennedy was in office. She provided the dusty traveller with a wealth of history on the tunnel and was happy to have a flashlight available for those who had forgotten one. Toni passed away shortly after her 90th birthday in February of 2004. Her nephew David had helped her get around in her last few years and had watched over her. Dave took over oversight of the tunnel, and was also a mining claimant. Unfortunately, the BLM found a controversial, and some say unjust, reason to tell Dave to leave the claim as a caretaker. After Dave left in June of 2004, Burro Schmidt's and the Lee/Seegar cabins were ransacked with their contents either stolen or demolished. Today the remnants of the two cabins are open to vandals, with no one present to provide oversight. Cabins that had been placed on the property during Toni's time were bulldozed by the BLM because they were "not historical", existed on public land, and were puportedly unsafe. All this vandalism occurred because no adequate caretaker was present, and is truly a loss for all of us. The BLM was fully aware of what would occur when Dave was forced to leave, but had "no provision" to canvas for an alternate caretaker, and knew of few volunteers. The tunnel survives for now, hopefully the BLM will not cover the entrances if someone bumps their head in the dark! A good video of the tunnel is available from the Huell Howser show on PBS titled "California Gold". The Burro Schmidt Tunnel episode was the most watched episode according to one source. The shows are available from libraries as well. Please visit this intriguing historic site, enjoy the views, and stop by Bickel Camp on the way.
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