Digging His Tunnel Was a Life’s Mission
Like all ambitious men, William Henry Schmidt yearned to leave his mark on the world.
He did it by digging.
In a grand metaphor for the futility of human endeavor, Schmidt spent 32 years hand-gouging a half-mile tunnel through a mountain peak near the Mojave Desert, for no clear purpose except to finish the job. An outhouse and a plaque now mark the spot, miles up a dirt road south of Ridgecrest.
“A monument to determination and perseverance,” the plaque declares.
“Burro” Schmidt, as he came to be known, finished the tunnel in 1938 at age 67. He died 16 years later, leaving an obscure but enduring legacy.
“Why a man would spend half his life drilling a hole through a mountain of solid rock is a question often contemplated,” writer Slim Randles reflected in a 1965 issue of Desert magazine. Though Randles offered no conclusion, he likened the magnitude of Schmidt’s work to the construction of Egypt’s great pyramid of Khufu.
A single man had fashioned “a monument to himself that will outlast the ancient tomb,” Randles suggested.
Ripley’s “Believe It Or Not” took due note of the feat. A column in the early 1940s described the 2,087-foot tunnel--through granitic rock 4,200 feet above sea level--as “the greatest one-man mining achievement in history.”
Schmidt appears in old photographs as lean and square-faced; in later years he has a beard and shock of white hair. A hard set to his mouth conveys a life of toil.
His initial goal, apparently, was to extract gold from Copper Mountain in the El Paso range. He planned to use the tunnel he was digging as a shortcut to the nearest railroad. But that seemed to change soon after his work began in 1906, according to those who have chronicled his story.
Schmidt kept digging after a new road and new railroad track made the shortcut unnecessary.
“Some 50 feet into the mountain, Schmidt struck potentially valuable veins of gold, silver, copper and iron,” said Evelyn Tonie Seger, who wrote a profile of him for the book “Odd and Eccentric People.” She still lives in a cabin adjoining Schmidt’s shack outside the tunnel.
“Instead of stopping to exploit the deposits,” Seger wrote, “he bored obsessively onward into the heart of the mountain.”
Was Schmidt after an even richer vein that he never found? No one can be sure. If you walk through the tunnel, as many tourists do, you can see the rusty-looking veins of low-grade gold ore on the rugged walls.
John Kittell, a store owner from the nearby mining town of Randsburg, pointed them out one afternoon, trekking through the tunnel with a flashlight.
“This is where he struck it--and he kept going,” Kittell said, reaching a hand into one dark cavity. “He wanted to have a tunnel.”
There is good evidence the tunnel became Schmidt’s mission. As you go deep into the mountain, beyond the point where you can see either exit, the tunnel narrows. The rock arches and ribs and planes of granite close in on you.
After digging about a third of a mile, Schmidt made a sharp right turn. “I think he decided he was running out of time,” Kittell said, “and this was the shortest way out.”
By then, Schmidt probably was in his 60s. The last segment of the tunnel becomes so small you have to squat. It ends by opening onto a steep ravine with extraordinary views of the distant San Gabriel and Tehachapi mountains. The silence is so full you can hear the faint gusts of an afternoon breeze.
Kittell, 70, recalled meeting Schmidt near the end of his life. “The Human Mole,” as he was dubbed in some accounts, was “bent over and taciturn, living over in Last Chance Canyon,” Kittell said.
No one knows how Schmidt felt about his life’s work, or exactly how long it took. Some accounts say he dug for 38 years, but most agree that he started in 1906 and was done by 1938.
Born in Woonsocket, R.I., Schmidt was said to have come to the desert to preserve his fragile health. Published accounts claim that his three brothers and three sisters all died of tuberculosis.
Schmidt dug with only a pick, hammer, hand-held drill--a sharpened pole several feet long--and dynamite. He would hammer the drill into the rock far enough to insert the dynamite, then blast.
An estimated 2,460 cubic yards of rock were removed, most of it on a narrow-gauge track and cart that Schmidt pushed by hand.
“All food, water and material had to be packed in during the years the tunnel was under construction,” columnist Pop Lofinck wrote 10 years after Schmidt’s death in the Rocketeer, a weekly paper published by the China Lake Naval Weapons Station. “No compressed air or gasoline motors. Think of all that work....”
The cart track still protrudes from the tunnel mouth. Schmidt’s cabin--his home for 45 years--exists much as it did, a one-room plank house built with scavenged wood. It has a tar-paper roof and a partial protective shell made of squares of metal from cans of blasting powder.
Scattered outside are discarded wine and brandy bottles, Schmidt’s rusted picks and drills and various rocks and minerals that he unearthed. His potbelly stove sits inside. He insulated the walls and ceiling by nailing up newspapers and magazines--a mosaic that includes Collier’s and the Saturday Evening Post, photos of pin-up stars Carole Lombard and Rosalind Russell, and a page from a 1935 edition of The Times touting a break in the Lindbergh trial: “Fisch Note Traps Hauptmann.”
One wall is filled with Aunt Jemima pancake boxes.
“That was his main diet--pancakes and beans,” said David Ayers, who oversees the landmark while serving as a caretaker for the 93-year-old Seger. A sign near the two cabins--Seger’s and Schmidt’s --instructs tourists to stop and register. The visitor log books go back to 1952.
“Those people are now bringing their own children,” Ayers said. On a good weekend, 50 or more people come up and tour the tunnel, he said.
Seger, who bought her cabin in 1963, nine years after Schmidt died, is in poor health but apparently determined to live out her days near the tunnel, surrounded by scrub brush and jack rabbits.
“It’s quite a place up here, isn’t it?” she said. “Can you imagine--right in the middle of the desert, on top of a mountain, is a tunnel?”
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