"Tunnel to Nowhere" a local marvel

The Sunday Escapist:  Part 1 in a Series One-day adventures in the Mojave Desert

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

"Tunnel to Nowhere" a local marvelThe Neipp and Young families make the trek through the historic Burro Schmidt Tunnel, carved through Copper Mountain in the El Pasos. — Photo by Rebecca Neipp

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Before the close of the 19th century, the Mojave Desert dwellers were — with very few exceptions — a motley crew of fortune hunters, opportunists, escapists, entrepreneurs, artists and intrepid survivalists. Others sought asylum from ill health or spiritual poverty. Most would fit into multiple categories.

While many of these characters of desert folklore have left us with some permanent reminder of their residency, few are as mysterious as William Henry “Burro” Schmidt.

Even if you don’t know his story, you’ve probably seen the sign on Highway 14 proclaiming entree to “Historic Burro Schmidt Tunnel.” Here, in the rugged El Paso mountains, the eccentric hermit spent 38 years of his life digging (mostly by hand) a half-mile through solid granite.

Nearly 80 years after completion, the purpose of Schmidt’s most enduring mark remains the subject of much debate.

Schmidt was born in 1871 in Rhode Island, and migrated to California around 1900 in hopes of improving his health. He reportedly began his career as a gold miner in the arid, sparsely populated region. Schmidt apparently complained to his associates about the treacherous ridge between his claim and the smelter to the south, and sought a safer passage. Thus he began carving a hole, about 6 feet tall and 10 feet wide, through the unrelenting bedrock.

Despite having no prior experience, Schmidt learned by trial and error (reportedly being trapped by falling rock and injured often) how to blast and carve his way nearly 2,500 feet through Copper Mountain.

Then, when he completed the tunnel circa 1938, he abandoned it.

Although he originally claimed his tunnel was a short cut, it ends abruptly at a vista overlooking Fremont Valley — not to any trail that would lead to the smelter.

For years rumors circulated that he had struck a secret vein of gold. But when he walked away, stooped and gnarled after years of tunneling, no visible evidence of treasure — on his person or in his tunnel — was ever discovered.

The region continued to play a notable role in local history — partly for the popular tunnel tours, partly because of the famous land dispute at nearby Bickel Camp in Last Chance Canyon. But the questions surrounding Schmidt’s bizarre endeavor remain unanswered to this day.

Our family has visited the tunnel on numerous occasions, and every trip has been a unique experience. The honeycombed trails make this a popular site for off-roaders (so if you’re looking to avoid this particular crowd, avoid holiday weekends), but also for infinitely customizable sightseeing. There are dozens of places to pull off the road to explore the abandoned mining equipment, the famous glass-bottle building, the shacks and shanties and long-neglected tools of every kind.

But the tunnel itself has always been the highlight of our visits. Our first time, having little idea of what to expect, we were not fully equipped for it. My ever-prepared husband had one small flashlight that our then-family-of-three, with a handful of other visitors huddled around us, all used to spot and avoid contact with the occasional low-grazing ceiling.

Before we got to the end, the battery failed. We paused en route, facing a path forward that was unutterably dark.

I can’t recall whether the strangers who traveled part way with us decided to continue or turn back at that point, but I know my husband and myself — clutching an infant to my chest — pressed on. It seemed endless. And there was no way to tell how far we had to go.

I remember wondering, why can’t I see the light at the end? How far must we have to go that I cannot make out the other side?

And then, abruptly, the tunnel turned in a sharp angle to the right. The heretofore hidden exit filled my frame of vision in a welcome, and picturesque, opening onto a ledge overlooking the marbled valley below. The transition was so startling all we could was stand there in silence, taking in the view.

On the way back, we had only a few yards to travel before getting to the main tunnel. All the way back, the light at the end of the tunnel grew and brightened in a promise that the end of the journey is near.

When I was a little girl, long before I ever saw Burro Schmidt Tunnel for myself, I remember my grandmother drawing a parallel between the tunnel and our walk through life. Sometimes, the way forward — even when it’s the right way — seems dark, hopeless and obscure. Often, it’s not until we look back on that journey that we can see it so clearly.

Story First Published: 2018-06-22