Rambling in the El Pasos
March 19-20, 2016
by Jay Lawrence
Spring in the desert is always a special time and a visit to the El Paso Mountains was long past due for me after twenty-five years. A trip plan was hatched. A crew of Desert Explorers signed on. Nan Healy, Bob Jaussaud, Stan Sholik, Ken Sears, Mignon Slentz, Ding and Allan Wicker and I met at the Redrocks picnic area east of Highway 14 at the south end of Redrocks Canyon State Park. It was a beautiful Saturday morning, the first day of Spring, a perfect day for a quick turn around the neighborhood.
This area a few miles to the east of the official park campground is a stark, rugged landscape with medium-sized mountains and a maze of roads, box canyons, wild geology plus loads of history. It was heavily prospected and mined in the 1890s and 1920s, with several areas actively mined right up through the end of the last century. Though the BLM and Park Service have done their level best to eliminate many historic old dwellings and structures, several notable exceptions remain.
We kicked off the morning with a short loop to the south and east up Iron Canyon, going past the entrance of Nightmare Gulch, a scenic area that is closed for raptor nesting from February through July.
We then gained a little altitude and motored over to the site of the Old Dutch Cleanser mine. The mine follows a large angled seam of pumicite, with hundreds of large hollowed-out rooms with huge pillars left in place to hold up the ceiling. Some exploring, a short hike, then downhill a bit to the Holly Talc Mine site, up Last Chance Canyon and the long way around to Cudahy Camp for a spot to overnight.
Our traditional potluck was first rate, and we munched and joked and told stories into the night. Spring Equinox was at 9:30 p.m. but we kept the celebration fairly respectable.
Sunday brought more blue skies and beautiful sights. The area is a patchwork of low ground cover, rock-walled sandy canyons and spectacular layered cliffs, many lifted to wild angles over the millenia.
We made our way to Bickel Camp, an outpost that was the hub of mining activity from 1920 to 1987 when Walt Bickel passed away. Today it is an ad hoc museum of old mine equipment, desert treasures and patched together buildings. Hikes were taken, old gear inspected, and lies were swapped. This little piece of history has narrowly escaped being destroyed by the BLM and is now manned part-time by volunteers of the Maturango Museum in Ridgecrest and is worth a visit.
Our next stop was Burro Schmidt’s tunnel, a half mile tunnel all the way through a mountain, dug entirely by hand over a 38-year period by William “Burro” H. Schmidt (1871–1954). Here is the story from Wikipedia:
“Burro” Schmidt, mining gold in the El Paso Mountains, was faced with a dangerous ridge between his mining claims and the smelter to the south in Mojave. Schmidt said that he would “never haul his ore to the Mojave smelter down that back trail” using his two burros. Thus, he began his tunnel in 1900. The tunnel was about six feet tall and ten feet wide. It was cut through solid granite bedrock and required little shoring. However, Schmidt was trapped many times by falling rock and injured often. He eventually installed a mining cart on rails.
In 1920 a road was completed from Last Chance Canyon to Mojave, eliminating the need for the tunnel, but Schmidt claimed to be obsessed with completion and dug on.
By 1938 he had achieved his “goal”, having dug through nearly 2,500 feet of solid granite using only a pick, a shovel, and a four-pound hammer for the first initial section, and carefully placed dynamite with notoriously short fuses for the majority portion. It was estimated that he had moved 5,800 tons of rock to complete his work.
Interestingly Schmidt never used the tunnel to move his mine’s ore. Instead, he sold the tunnel to another miner and moved away. A Ripley’s Believe It or Not cartoon celebrated the feat, calling him the human mole. Schmidt’s cabin has been largely abandoned and stands as it was in the 1930s, preserved by the dry climate.
The Bureau of Land Management states that they own the Schmidt Tunnel and associated surrounding land because it is an unpatented mining claim under the General Mining Act of 1872 (i.e., ownership of the underlying land always remained with the U.S. government under the management of the Bureau of Land Management with only mining rights transferred to the mining claim owner) where no mining operations are underway, meaning that all rights revert to the BLM under the Federal Land Policy And Management Act of 1976 upon the death of the grandfathered claimant Evelyn A. (Tonie) Seger who had possessed the claim prior to 1976.
A small group of history buffs and outdoorsmen, The Friends of Last Canyon are actively preserving the site but ongoing disputes about ownership of the mining claim and historic structures continue to interfere with preservation efforts. As a result, Schmidt’s Cabin has fallen prey to vandalism.
Twenty-five years ago, the property was occupied and maintained by friends of Burro Schmidt after his passing, but today it is scrap. It is a sad testamant to government horseplay and the actions of desert vandals.
To wrap up the trip we headed east down Mesquite Canyon with a short stop for lunch, then south to hit the pavement near the Garlock townsite at Redrocks-Randsburg Road. Not too many miles, but a fun trip with great people. Many thanks to all who joined in.
— Jay Lawrence