Around the turn of the century, nearly 1000 people inhabited this the relatively small area of the Mojave seeking riches from the Earth in the form of borax, sulfate, talc, copper, silver and gold. Now a days in this Red Rock area you won't find any miners, pick axes, slag or stamp mills operating out here, but you may stumble upon the remains of equipment, tanks, foundations and trash of those hardy folks who tried to make a go out there in the desert with no water, crops, paved roads or much in the way of mechanized vehicles. 2 folks in particular have made a legend for themselves with out really knowing it or trying. Walt Bickel and William Henry “Burro” Schmidt were 2 friends and neighbors that just operated in their daily lives trying to get by and praying to strike it rich!
William Henry Schmidt was a miner who got the nickname “Burro” because of his obsession with hand digging a half mile tunnel through a mountain. Walt Bickel operated a small camp and a hub in the area for miners to come get supplies, take a bath and have their tools sharpened or repaired. There are probably enough rumors and stories about each of these men to fill a rock quarry. I can relate to my man Bickel, from a tour of his camp it is plain to see that this ole coot was pretty darn handy. He built a well drilling machine out of 2 car frames, a motor and some large tubing. He was a welder, machinist and all 'round desert steampunk factotum.
“Burro” Schmidt, it seems, was one who adhered to a more single minded task: mole a hole through a mountain. I wondered what he was looking for? Some sources say that he was looking for an easier path to bring ore to the local stamp mill. Others say he was out to get some gold. Many believed that ol' Schmidt was just crazy and became obsessed with getting a hole punched through that mountain. Any way you dig at Schmidt it is plain to see that he was compelled to tunnel through. He began his excavation in 1900 and punched out the other side in 1938. I was told by the Bickel camp caretakers that he would work on it for part of the winter season and take time off in the hot summer months. Still 38 years is dedication – he made a career out of it! A plaque at the entrance of the tunnel testifies to Burro Schmidt's “determination and perseverance”.
Image a day out there at Bickel's camp in the dry, but busy Red Rock desert. I can see Schmidt hiking down to Bickel with some worn out mining bits that need sharpening. “Afternoon Walt” Schmidt might say. “Need my bits sharpened”. “Will do Burro, making progress?” Walt would reply. “Same as usual, say, got that new pick axe in?”. Walt shakes his head “no” while he cranks up the foot powered metal grinder.
It's not hard to image these two friends going about their daily lives in hopes of making their fortunes in this desert. I am not real sure how savy Bickel and Schmidt really were, neither of them appear to have struck it rich and grew their businesses beyond the Mojave, regardless, both men are legendary in the area for their perseverance and mechanical skill.
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