Most mountains are conquered by climbers ascending their tallest peak. William Henry Schmidt did his conquering by digging, drilling and blasting through the interior of Copper Mountain. Why? Schmidt's precise justification went with him to his grave, but "Because it was there" seems as valid a reason as any.
William Henry Schmidt was born in Woonsocket, Rhode Island in January of 1871. As a young man, he was frail and small of stature. Six of his brothers and sisters died from tuberculosis. He was expected to face the same fate as his siblings unless he moved to the West with its hot, dry climate.
Young Schmidt came to California in 1894, a year before the big gold strike above the Fremont Valley. He prospected around Kern County and eventually established claims in the (then) remote interior of the El Paso Mountains, near Last Chance Canyon. The canyon was known to travelers before Schmidt's day. Some forty years earlier, in February of 1850, William Lewis Manly passed through on his escape from Death Valley. The mountain range, particularly to the east near Garlock or Cow Wells , as it had once been called, was an established mining area.
A successful mining operation depends on several factors. First, there must be a worthwhile body of ore that will allow itself to be separated from the surrounding rock. Secondly, a transportation infrastructure must be available to convey the ore to a processing or distribution facility. Mojave, about 20 miles to the south, was the local transportation hub. The Southern Pacific Railroad had been there since 1876. Closer were the mills of Garlock or those in the young mining town of Randsburg. Schmidt's dilemma was that no roads, only scant trails, were available in the El Pasos. His primary route of travel, like Manly's, was through Last Chance Canyon.
A time to dig
There had to be a better route. This was a time of building, a period of great ideas. Work had already started on a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. There was talk of building a gigantic pipeline from the Owens Valley to bring water to Los Angeles. Schmidt had an idea. He would build a tunnel through Copper Mountain. Flatlands, meaning easy access to Garlock or Mojave, lay on the other side. History remembers that year, 1906, not for the birth of Schmidt's Tunnel, but for the destruction of San Francisco by the Great Quake.
Schmidt apparently had no formal training in either mining or engineering. He had no power tools, although the use of such appliances was well established in the mining industry. He pounded through the solid rock with a pick, four-pound hammer and a hand drill. The broken rock was carried out first on his back, and later in a wheelbarrow. Schmidt would eventually install iron tracks and a mine car to transport debris beyond the growing tunnel.
Schmidt lived a solitary and frugal existence in the high desert. His only companions were a pair of burros, Jack and Jenny. The locals dubbed him Burro Schmidt. His clothes were patched with flour sacks. Tin cans were pressed into service as soles for his shoes. An old cast iron stove, purchased second hand, cooked his meals and heated his one room cabin which was insulated with old magazines. Two of his favorite meals were supposed to have been pancakes and a fish chowder made from sardines, rice and boiled onions.
Short fuses save money
Burro's mining habits differed little from his sartorial and eating habits. He did most of the work by hand. Some explosives were used, but in character with his frugal nature, Schmidt would cut the fuses as short as possible. Once the fuse was lit, he literally would run for his life toward the end of the tunnel and throw himself to the ground to avoid being struck by the force of the blast and debris. Sometimes either his fuses were too short, or he didn't run fast enough, because he would occasionally show up injured at another prospectors shack.
When he could afford it, Schmidt burned kerosene in his lamps. When kerosene became an unobtainable luxury, he used candles, but limited himself to one two-cent candle each day.
Work progressed slowly. At some point in time, the tunnel mutated from a project into an obsession. Schmidt would hire out during the summer months on Kern River ranches in order to generate income to support his digging. In the 1920s, a good road was constructed through lower Last Chance Canyon to the Dutch Cleanser Mine at Cudahay Camp. It connected with the rail line extended from Mojave in 1909. Schmidt was in his fifty's, and for most folks, this would have been reason enough to stop tunneling and get on with mining.
Daylight at last
But reason didn't Burro Schmidt. He continued tunneling until 1938 when daylight was finally visible through the far side of his tunnel. Fifty eight hundred tons of rock had been hollowed out of Copper Mountain.
Sixty seven years old, stooped and gnarled from thirty two years and more than 2000-feet of tunneling, Schmidt never used the tunnel to transport ore. He sold the claim to another miner, Mike Lee, and moved elsewhere the El Pasos. "I never made a damn thing out of it," Schmidt said. He retained ownership in several other claims. The California Journal of Mines and Geology, April 1949, showed Schmidt as the owner of the Copper Basin Group of mines (copper) and the Iron Hat mine (gold).
Burro lived another sixteen years. He died in January of 1954 at the age of 83 and is buried in the Johannesburg Cemetery. Was it Schmidt who conquered the mountain, or the mountain that conquered Schmidt?
The Lone Miner
Robert L. Ripley , cartoonist, chronicler of human oddities, and author of the "Believe It or Not " features, made Schmidt's legacy known to the world in the 1940's. Ripley called Schmidt "The Lone Miner" of the Black Mountain. Ripley wrote, "Wm. H. Schmidt spent 32 years boring thru a mountain. The greatest one man mining achievement in history. He dug the tunnel 2,000 feet long in order to facilitate the shipment of ore."
Today, Schmidt's Tunnel is owned by Tonie Seger who graciously allows visitors to explore the depths of one man's obsession.