Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Crazy like a fox: Did miner Burro Schmidt uncover riches in hand-dug tunnel?


William Henry Schmidt, born in Woonsocket, Rhode Island in 1871 possessed none of the qualifications to become a high desert prospector, but 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, twenty-five 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.

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