As a kid, you were convinced that enough digging in the backyard would take you straight through to China. That exotic adventure never panned out, but at least one man never grew out of tireless tunneling—regardless of whether or not China really lay on the other side.
In 1902, deep in the Mojave Desert in California, a man named William Henry Schmidt began chiseling. Over the next 36 years, he would dig a 2,087-foot tunnel that led absolutely nowhere. Using hand tools and explosives, with only the help of two donkeys, the lonely miner forged a tunnel from one side of the Copper Mountain to a ledge on the other side.
Schmidt had arrived in California after his family had been wiped out by tuberculosis in his home state of Rhode Island. He too had apparently been struck with the disease and was told by a doctor that his only shot at survival was to move to a drier climate. So, Schmidt followed the gold rush to the El Paso mountains and claimed an area of mining land. Then, he set to work building a shortcut that would take the minable minerals he found through the mountain. The Mojave is rich with silver, tungsten, gold, and iron deposits. While he tunneled, he’d work summer side jobs at nearby ranches to support himself for the rest of the year. After the tunnel was complete, Schmidt went about building a rail line through it.
The only catch to his grand plan—Schmidt not only never extracted any of the ore he originally planned to mine but he also never seemed to look for it despite ample evidence that the tunnel was full of mineral veins. As he worked on his passageway, a nearby road was built that could have shuttled his materials from the mountain to the market, making his tunnel work virtually unnecessary, yet he continued on his project. For years, Schmidt lived in poverty, eating beans and mending his clothes with flour sacks. His bizarre obsession earned him the nickname “Burro.” But even if he had hit gold and transported it through his finished tunnel, there was no real place for it to go—his rail line opened up on a ledge that was just a sprawling view of the desert.
He was dubbed “the human mole” by Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and soon visitors began flocking to the remote mountain to get a look at the strange man and his ceaseless digging. There were rumors that Schmidt was motivated by buried treasure or another secret of the mountain, but they were never proven.
When the project was completed, Schmidt moved from the tunnel into town. He hired an assistant to take curious tourists on tours of the tunnel to nowhere, a practice that lasted past his death in 1954 and until his partner’s death in 1963. After that, Evelyn Seger and her husband purchased the property and, though her husband died in 1964, she stuck it out in the cabin until her death in 2003 at the age of 95.
“Burro” Schmidt’s cabin, covered in newspaper clippings and advertisements from the early 1900s, still stands in the desert, but it’s now dilapidated and vandalized. Next door, a caretaker’s house sits in a similar state of ruin, and the California Bureau of Land Management has fenced the two off to prevent further destruction. The tunnel, on the other hand, will survive for posterity, a single hole constructed by a lone man, piercing the desert’s legendary mountain range.