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Historic tunnel part of Kern history

For more than three decades, digging a tunnel through a mountainside in the middle of the Mojave Desert was William "Burro" Schmidt's obsession.
/ Source: KGET-TV

For more than three decades, digging a tunnel through a mountainside in the middle of the Mojave Desert was William "Burro" Schmidt's obsession.

He claims he was passing up possible good strikes, but he was so obsessed with the tunnel he just kept on digging.

Through the side of Copper Mountain, near the mining town of Randsburg, Schmidt did something unmatched.

Because his family was prone to tuberculosis, Schmidt left his native Rhode Island for the dry desert air. Arriving in 1900, he soon staked a mining claim on a remote and desolate mountainside.

Finding the tunnel off of Highway 14 is an adventure all itself.

Supposedly located by three billboards is a sign that says "Burro Schmidt Tunnel, this way." Its then another nine miles on sand dune type terrain.

The tunnel's current owner is 93-year-old Toni Seeger who bought the tunnel and its surrounding 800 acres of land in 1963. It was estate sales in Bakersfield of the second tunnel owner, Mike Lee, a friend of Schmidt.

She did it for the health of her husband, who ironically, died on the property just one year later at the age of 42.

"I found this place and that's high dry desert. Right in the middle of the desert is a hill," said Seeger. "And on top of the hill is this tunnel."

In 1906, alongside his two trusty burros, Schmidt began digging the tunnel by hand, using steel rods, shovels, and sticks of dynamite, when he had the money to buy them.

"He probably drilled about 12 to 15 holes and packed them full of blasting powder," said David Ayers, the tunnel guide. "He lit his fuse and then he ran."

Schmidt's original plan for the tunnel wasn't to get rich from gold, but from creating a short cut through the mountain, charging miners to get to the other side. That way, not only could he haul out his own ore easier, but make money from other miners.

Disaster struck his tunnel four years later. The Southern Pacific Rail Line was completed, providing a good road to a nearby mine, making his tunnel useless.

Still, Schmidt continued to dig, driven by his obsession to get to the other side. In the meantime, Schmidt bypassed promising signs of riches, like a solid vein of copper.

Finally, 32 years later, Schmidt broke through the mountain. The total length with side tunnels came to nearly a half mile long.

Schmidt began his work at the age of 36 and finished the tunnel at 68. No longer wanting the tunnel, he sold it. Schmidt died in 1954 at the age of 84. His funeral was held in front of his famed tunnel.

Today, tourists can visit the tunnel and Schmidt's original cabin. Still inside is the stove Schmidt cooked on and the ceiling and walls plastered with newspapers and magazines from the twenties and thirties used for insulation.

"Another question I'm asked a lot is, do you think Burro is nuts? Or was he nuts and sometimes I actually say yes," said Ayers. "Because, 32 years doing just this, but maybe he had his own reasons."