High in the El Paso Range, in the upper reaches of Mesquite Canyon, twelve miles west of Randsburg, in the living exponent of persistence, William Schmidt, better known to desert folks in that area as “Burro” Schmidt, 80-year-old recluse, “Burro” spent forty years of his life accomplishing one thing—hand-drilling a half-mile tunnel entirely through a mountain.
Over that period, he worked on farms in the Kern River Valley, accumulating “beans” for the winter at his mine. Regularly, he appeared in Johannesburg with his burros and loaded up supplies at the Teagle’s Store each fall. 1937, his tunnel was finished, and the accomplishment received national publicity. Photographs of the tunnel, his burrow, and “Burro” Schmidt appeared in daily press and international mining journals. Single jack and drill steel and “Burro” Schmidt were the combination that did the job — no compressed air or gasoline motors.
As he nears the end of the trail, happy to have completed a lifetime undertaking, he proposes offering his tunnel and the story of mineralogy it tells to a California university. It will be a natural laboratory for the new generations who want to know the story of the rocks. It is a noble gesture from a nobleman of the desert hills.
This Story by Jack Smith of the Los Angeles “Times” shows that smart Newsmen can always find a “Pocket Full of Miracles” — At Old Fort Oliver.
PALM SPRINGS— Harry Oliver, the old desert rat, was listening to the World Series on his radio when we dropped by to see if he had new lies.
Oliver lives out in the desert in a “100-year-old” adobe fort he built about 20 years ago. He calls it Ft. Oliver. The yard is full of rusty old antiques, including Oliver’s 17-year-old dog Whiskers.
Oliver said Whiskers is getting deaf. Oliver bought him a hearing aid. Whiskers swallowed the works. He thought it was a peanut.
“He keeps hearing his old stomach rumbling and thinks it’s thunder,” Oliver said. “He goes in the house to get out of the rain.”
Besides Whiskers Oliver has two bobtail cats, Dot and Comma. “They’re supposed to help me punctuate,” Oliver said. Oliver is the Editor and the entire staff of Harry Oliver’s Desert Rat Scrap Book.
It is printed four times a year on a big piece of paper folded four times. It has two slogans: “Price two bits” and “Only newspaper you can open in the wind.”
The Scrapbook is full of philosophy, wit and facts. A mosquito has 22 teeth; bees tases with their knees. These are facts from the Scrapbook. Dry Camp Blackie would rather have a cat than a TV set. This is philosophy.
We met Dry Camp Blackie. He said hello. He was sitting in the shade outside Ft. Oliver with Whiskers. Blackie sat there all the time we were there and was sitting when we left.
Harry loves and protects all desert creatures. He has a talking crow and used to have a tortoise named Hopalong Pushadee. He died.
Oliver says the buzzards come back to Ft. Oliver every year like the swallows come back to Capistrano.
Oliver has a Ford station wagon which he says he has driven for 33 years without denting a fender or running over a horned toad. He is the inventor of the mule swearing contest where a man gets a prize for cussing out a mule the best, and the lazy dog contest for the laziest dog. The dog and his owner each get a prize.
Oliver has fought for years to save the burros. He also invented thde burro flapjack contest for prospectors and burros. The prospectors have to pack their burros, race 100 yds., unpack, build a fire and cook a flapjack. The first prospector who gets his burro to eat a flapjack gets a prize. I believe the burro does, too.
Oliver talks to his crow and used to talk to Hopalong. He is trying to teach Whiskers to bark in italics. Oliver knows desert weather. Last August he predicted August was going to be as hot as July was all through September. It was. He says in the desert a 6-inch rain means the drops were 6 inches apart.
Oliver is 74-5/12 years young. “After you pass 70 you count your age like children,” he says. “You put in the quarters and halves.” His hair and beard are white but he’s as tough as an old wagon wheel. He says the future is getting here quicker than it used to, though.
Oliver is like old Sky-Eye Jones, who is Oliver’s flying saucer expert. Sky-Eye is 90. He has discovered that every time he lives through March he lives through the whole year, so far.
Oliver says he owes his jokes to his memory and his facts to his imagination. But so what? His paper only costs two-bits.
In the beginning, Calico prided itself on being an anti-Chinese camp. But it proved almost impossible to get any but Chinese cooks, so anyone who maintained a mine boarding house or restaurant in the Calicos just about had to hire Chinese help.
Yung Hen-naturally called Young, started as a cook in the Snowbird mine in Mule Canyon. He was perhaps 50, though it was difficult to judge his age. In fact all of them – wore a long queue. And though they wore levis, they also wore their traditional Chinese blouses. I believe he was Cantonese.
After cooking at several mines, Yung Hen decided to go into business for himself by starting a restaurant in Calico. A mass meeting was held to prevent it at which a big Cornish miner arose and gave his solution to the problem: “I tell you, boys, if – we just keep the first one out we’ll never have any trouble with those that come afterward.”
The mass meeting didn’t stop Young Hen, nor did attempts to frighten .him away. Once a group took him out and actually had the rope around his neck, threatening to hang him if he did not leave. He said calmly, “All right, go ahead. Plenty more Chinamen where I come from.”
In time Yung Hen had three or four boarding houses. He spent most of his time in Calico, putting his cousins in the others as managers. In 1885 he bought out the family running the boarding house at the Occidental mine, where I was carpenter. I was loaned to him. He told me what he wanted done, building tables and benches, and moving partitions in adding another room to the building. Then he left me with his two cousins, who were I laughing and skylarking all day long.
One day these boys wanted me to eat with them. They had cooked a dish which they seemed to consider a great delicacy – with a foundation of dried abalones about the size and toughness of rubber boot heels and fully as black. After these had boiled a couple of hours, Chinese cabbage and some sort of small fish, both of which smelled to high heaven, were added and all were boiled another hour. Twenty minutes before serving, two-inch cubes of fat fresh pork were added and cooked just long enough to become nearly transparent. The boys insisted that the stew was velly nice, but I felt I must decline it.
A couple of days after Christmas 1884, a young Irishman known as Scotty, who had been celebrating by imbibing largely on “tarantula juice,” decided to complete the celebration with a turkey dinner. So he flied to Yung Hen’s Calico restaurant and ordered turkey and fixin’s. The two young Chinese boys – cousins or nephews of Yung Hen – set before him all their remaining turkey, largely, scraps and bones.
This so highly offended Scotty that he forgot the spirit of Christmas, threw the food at the boy who waited on him, upset the table, and began smashing dishes and furniture. The two Chinese boys grappled with him, trying to put him outside, and in the melee, Scotty lost one shoe, most of one pants leg, and his shirt.
To the glory of old Ireland, he was holding his own until one of the boys rushed into the kitchen, returning with a bucket of almostboiling water in one hand and a long-handled dipper in the other. A few dippers of water placed where they did the most good and the restaurant and whole camp were too small for friend Scotty. He made what the boys facetiously called a straight shirttail for the mine where he was employed and spent several days nursing various scalded places about his person, the while he cursed the Chinese people in general and the relatives of Yung Hen in particular.
He didn’t receive much sympathy, however, as by then Yung Hen stood well in the camp. A goodly number of prospectors had been grubstaked by him and many a man had eaten on credit with him until he could get a job.
And by that time they had a saying that though he might be a young hen in name he was some tough old rooster by nature.
Most of the small piled rock and semi-dugout dwellings near the mines at Calico were built by Cornish miners, known as “Cousin Jacks,” possibly because about every third person among them was named John and called Jack and because so many of them seemed to be related. They had a great feeling for ties of blood, and when they became prosperous, they would send for their relatives.
I first became acquainted with them at the Garfield mine in Odessa canyon in 1884. About 50 per cent of the working force there, including the mine foreman, was Cornish. They spoke a patois all their own; a mixture of English, Welsh and probably Gaelic, with a few words brought down from the ancient Picts. Their sentence structure was unique which, with their peculiar accent and mode of speaking made it hard for one not acquainted to I understand them. I remember once there was an Englishman in camp, from a county just north of Cornwall and a Cousin Jack criticized his speech, saying, “Why don’t ‘e speaken English like I do?” The Englishman retorted: “You don’t speak English-you gobble!”
And they did gobble, speaking rapidly in a deep guttural. They had many peculiarities of tongue. “Take” was always “taken.” An ore car was always a “wagon” and they never pushed, but would “go forth” with it. They used the third person where we ordinarily use the second, and most of their sentences ended with “you.” “How’s the mother, you?”
I soon caught onto their language, and as they were almost without exception kindly and companionable I men, I enjoyed working with them and learned much from them, both of the trade of mining and their history and beliefs. For example, there were the Tommy Knockers – if that is the way it is spelled. These were the little people who populated the mines. They were in the walls and everywhere, according to the Cousin Jacks. You know, in a mine tunnel more than anywhere else there are mysterious sounds – the natural creaking of timbers and settling of rocks – and of course these were the Tommy Knockers, warning of impending disaster. It was just too bad if you could not understand what they were trying to say, for they might be warning you.
I remember only one characteristic food of the Cousin Jacks – cakes and puddings colored with saffron. I suppose it was all right, but that orange-yellow looked pretty deadly to me. The pudding was made of cut up dried or canned fruit – any kind they happened to have – with just enough flour to hold it together and saffron. This was put in a cloth or sack and boiled.
The Cornishmen did not combine to any extent the calling of miner with that of prospector, as did most other nationalities. They were the best miners as a whole that the world could boast, having followed the trade, father and son, for centuries. The big Cornishman Jack Pascoe was a fine example. Jack was well over six feet in height and every inch a miner, and a great worker. At one time he was hired for a short time to substitute for one of three partners who were doing 400 feet of tunnel in the King mine by contract. Putting in every third shift in the tunnel, Jack raised its roof by a foot and a half every shift he worked, in order to accommodate his great height. When the annoyed contractors protested, his reply was:
“Dammee, old son, you! Have to maken place for my feet!”
The wavy roof in this tunnel became known as Jack Pascoe’s mark.
When I visited it last in 1941, I could tell exactly the number of shifts Jack had worked.
Stories of life in the days when Calico was booming were collected by Alice Salisbury, from women who had lived in the colorful camp, and printed in the Barstow Printer-Review. Here are some of the memories that Mrs. Salisbury preserved:
Mrs. Lucy B. Lane – I was very happy as a school girl in Calico when the town was in its prime. The thing that bothers me is to have people ask me to describe some of the murders and shootings and brawls that they say must have taken place in a booming silver camp in the ’89s. Only two murders, you know, in the whole course of Calico’s history, and those committed by strangers, one a card-cheating affair, and one a boundary fight.
Mrs. Annie Falconer – of course there weren’t any little plaster saints up there in Calico. The men all thought they had to wash that red dust out of their throats with plenty of liquor and at one time 13 saloons were helping them to do it.
There we were, occupying a plateau only 350 yards long. Private houses, three general stores, two drugstores, a jewelry store run by Mr. Stacy, restaurants, the Palace and later the Cosmopolitan hotels – 20 rooms with lace curtains, those saloons, two dance halls, the town hall, assay offices, the Chinese quarter about 40 strong in the gully just below us to the east – all rubbing elbows goodnaturedly.
Alice La Maintain – Calico’s additions to Main Street were made by extension bridges thrown across those unhandy gullies. At first, tents, cave-dugouts, rough looking houses with tiers of bunks lining the walls sprung up like mushrooms, frame houses built from lumber teamed clear from San Bernardino.
Sarah Kennedy – Water was pumped from wells down on the water levels and was stored in a huge redwood tank located high above the town and piped by gravity into every house for $1.50 a month.
Fanny Mudgett – Fun? Of course we had fun – nice fun, too. I tell you, Calico was a real home town, not a brawling, shooting, bloody camp. We girls invited our boy friends home and entertained them with “sings” around the cottage organ, or the guitar, or the violin.
I’ve never gone to such nice jolly dances since I left Calico. I can shut my eyes now and hear Bill Nelson’s fiddle playing “The Beautiful Blue Danube!” My brother, Jimmy Mulcahy, Tornado Tim and Whooper Up Mike were all wonders at calling for the square dances.
Mrs. Endora Goodrich – There were some mighty pretty, lively girls up there in Calico, and nice girls were treated mighty respectfully by those “wild” Calico menfolks, but not so respectfully that they didn’t have plenty of lively fun. Who wouldn’t with about three men to every girl?
Mrs. Oliver Connell – We women all took to nursing like ducks to water. Whenever anyone with or without a family was sick, we all flew in and tried to help things along. When the pneumonia epidemic almost filled up Calico’s cemetery, we had our hands full. Graves were blasted out of rock. That was sad mining for us.
The first discovery of mineral made in this fabulously rich mining district was made some seven or eight years ago (1874-75) about three miles northerly from Grape Vine Station (now Barstow) and Waterman & Porter’s mill and about eight miles distant from the rich and extensive mineral belt which surrounds for miles in every direction the promising town of Calico. It was made by an eccentric old man by the name of Lee, who was, it is supposed, killed by Indians whilst on one of his solitary prospecting expeditions some three years ago in the vicinity of Old Woman Springs.
Lee first located on the property now owned by Waterman & Porter upon which they keep a fine ten-stamp mill and a large force of men in constant operation, the mill each day adding to the country’s wealth. This ledge was worked by Lee for a quicksilver mine, and the rich horn silver for which it is so famous was called by him “pencil lead,” he taking the’ native silver for particles of quicksilver. The work, having been abandoned for some two or three years consequent upon the death of Lee, Waterman, and Porter, being out in quest of mining properties, were shown the property by Mr. E. J. Miller, Recorder of the Grape Vine District.
Porter, being a practical miner, on his first visit, recognized the immense value of the property and immediately commenced making locations. This was in the fall of 1880. During that winter and in the spring of 1881, hundreds of locations were made in the immediate vicinity until not a red rock remains but what is well monumented.
Not until the spring of 1881 were there any discoveries made on Calico Mountain. The first was made by Lowery Silver (elsewhere Silva), who is still a resident miner of the district, and was made a short distance north of where the town of Calico is now situated. The first work of any note that was done in what is now Calico District, but then the Grape Vine District (Calico having lately segregated), was some four miles northwesterly from the town on the Consolidated and Pico claims. In March or April last, our worthy under-sheriff, Tom Warden, together with Hues Thomas and others, discovered the wonder of the age, the great “King Mine,” the richest and biggest mine in the State of California.
After these discoveries many others were made and located, among which were the Oriental series by Messrs. Allison, Waldrip, Day and others and subsequently sold to Messrs. Earl & Garnett, of San Francisco. This splendid property, upon which a tramway and mill are soon to be built, is being rapidly developed under the superintendency of Judge James Walsh; while Sam James keeps his weather eye open upon the doings around the famous King Mine. During the fore part of July last the rich deposits of the Burning Moscow were located by J. B. Whitfield, John Peterson and Hieronymas Hartman. This mine is still in active operation, having produced some of the richest hornsilver ore ever found in camp.
Rich locations are still being made each day adding to the number, and the rich finds lately made in the eastern portion of the district have given an impetus to prospecting.
One year ago where Calico now stands there was not a single house, and on Wall street but one camp (Allison’s) and James Parker and Ellie Miller were the sole inhabitants, on the Fourth of July last, and not until Sam James and his party arrived a few days afterward to commence operations on the King Mine was there any show of activity. If one year has made so decided a change what may we not expect during the next 12 months: From present appearances we hazard. the opinion that e’er another year shall have rolled around that our little wooden village will have given place to an active, busy, bustling mining town, second to none in this or any other State or Territory. Surely the richness and number of our mines demand it.
Any of you old Desert Rats want to bet a gallon of good whiskey that the following turtle story ain’t true?
Old Bill Goeglein a retired assayer, now living in Wickenburg, Aiz., is noted for his veracity all over this desert.
In May, 1921, he went to Los Angeles and drove back a new Ford car. About five miles west of Amboy, Calif., he noticed the whole country ahead seemed to be moving and it was. A great migration of turtles was crossing the road ahead. The deep ruts in the road were filled with turtles and hundreds and thousands of them were crossing over them, moving in a northerly direction.
To the south as far as he could see and to the north as far as he could see was a moving mass of turtles spaced a few feet apart. As there seemed no end in sight, he decided to drive through them. He put her into low and ground through turtle meat, blood and guts for a full quarter mile before getting clear of the great migration.
When he arrived at the little filling station at Amboy, he stopped to clean the wheels and fenders of turtle meat. While there a small truck came in with the same experience.
After Old Bill told me this story, I made it a point to ask every old Desert Rat I met if he ever saw anything like this. In time I found an old cow puncher who saw the same thing in southwestern New Mexico. Thousands of turtles were crossing the Southern Pacific tracks and were piled up trying to get over the rails. A number of Indian Squaws were there filling funny sacks with turtles. One old Squaw said that the turtles from all over the desert went to a certain place to lay their eggs. After which they all migrated so as to leave the feed for the young turtles. Sounds reasonable.—John C. Herr, Wickenburg, Ariz.
The Murphy mine was the only producer of any importance in this district, located on the east flank of the Toiyabe range, about 50 miles south of Austin, but in Nye County. A party of French prospectors wandered into the area in 1863. It was a costly operation, with supplies hauled in from Austin over the summit of the Toiyabes at over 10,000 feet. The Murphy mine is credited with a production of $750,000, but the mine paid no dividends. An enormous mill building, built of brick, and ruins of several stone houses on the side of the canyon above the mill are about all that remain today. Ophir Creek, a small clear stream of tumbling water, is a favorite trout stream, and dozens of fishing parties visit each year.
At the mouth of Ophir Canyon, placer gold was discovered a few years ago, but nothing has come of the discovery. On the side hill where the canyon breaks down into Smoky Valley is a small cemetery with perhaps 25 graves, many containing children. Names of most of those buried there are now forgotten. Below the main cluster of mounds are several isolated graves. In one of these a gunman, name now unknown, was buried. “Rutabaga Tom,” and old Indian, still living, tells the following story of this lone grave:
“One bad man, nobody like, buried there, because nobody wants him close to good people. He mean man, killum man just for fun. One time he pick fight with young fellow called Black Bart. They promise fight battle. Each take gun, stand back to back, then walk off thirty steps, but this bad mans he walk only take twenty steps, then he turn quick like rattlesnake striking and shoots at Black Bart. Mebbyso he excited, for he miss target. Black Bart he walk 30 steps, turn, and bad man he is running off. One shot — and he fall — dead. Dead all over. Good people bury bad man all by himself, so he won’t go to happy hunting grounds, with other mans.”—From 50th Anniversary Edition, Tonopah Times Bonanza
DESERT RAT TEN COMMENDENTS [sic] BY THE EDITOR (from Harry Oliver’s Desert Rat Scrapbook)
Thou shalt love the DESERT, but not lose patience with those who say it’s bleak and ornery (even when the wind is blowing).
Thou shalt speak of the DESERT with great reverence, and lie about it with great showmanship, adding zest to Tall Tales and Legends.
Thou shalt not admit other DESERTS have more color than the one on which you have staked your claim.
Thou shalt on the Sabbath look to the Mountain Peaks so’s to know better your whereabouts, so’s you can help others to know the DESERT, dotting on the map the places where you have camped.
Honor the Pioneers, Explorers and the Desert Rats who found and marked the water holes . . . they tell you about the next water hole and try to help you.
Thou shalt not shoot the Antelope-Chipmunk, Kangaroo Rat or other harmless Desert friends. (Keep your shot for a snake.)
Thou shalt not adulterate the water holes nor leave the campsite messed up. Be sure to take 10 gallons of water with you. Don’t have to ask the other fellow on the road for a quart, but be able to help the tenderfoot by giving him some water.
Thou shalt not steal (from the prospector’s shack), nor forget to fill the wood box and water pail.
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor; you know the mining laws; you know the whereabouts of his monuments.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s sleeping bag, his gun, nor the contents of his canteen.
Death Valley was having one of its periodic wind storms when the tourists drove up in front of Inferno store to have their gas tank filled.
Hard Rock Shorty was seated on the bench under the lean-to porch with his hat pulled down to his ears to keep it from blowing away.
“Have many of these wind storms?” one of the dudes asked.
“Shucks, man, this ain’t no wind storm. Jest a little breeze like we have nearly every day. You have to go up in Windy Pass in the Panamints to find out what a real wind is like.
“Three-four years ago I wuz up there doin’ some prospectin’. Got together a little pile o’ wood an’ finally got the coffee to boilin’. Then I set it on a rock to cool while I fried the eggs.
“About that time one of them blasts o’ wind come along and blowed the fire right out from under the fryin’ pan. Blowed ‘er away all in one heap so I kept after it tryin’ to keep that fryin’ pan over the fire to git my supper cooked.
“I usually like my eggs over easy, but by the time 1 got one side done I wuz all tired out so I let ‘er go at that. Had to walk four miles back to the coffee pot.”