“Fortunately, the task of preparing this volume has been carried on by those who have had the feeling that a piece of work must be done, but who also have had a purpose to make it reveal beauty and exude the historical atmosphere of the region with which it is concerned.”

—Santa Barbara: A Guide to the Channel City and Its Environs (1941)

Posted in Reference | 7 Comments

Native American Rock Art (Kern County)

Indian rock art pictographsThis rock art panel painted on granite sits in a shallow canyon along the foothills of a mountain range on the edge of California’s Mojave Desert. More art adorns the underside of a natural shelter formed by the boulders, but has been nearly entirely erased by the elements. A large millstone with numerous mortars lays at the foot of the painted rock and an adjacent boulder is also painted.

Native American pictographs Kern CountyIndian mortars millstoneThe pictographs are found on the shaded face of the boulder.

Indian mortarsI always marvel at deep mortars bored into granite, an exceedingly hard stone. It reflects many long hours of use. Note the patina surrounding the work surface of the stone compared to the rougher edges of the boulder, which also reflects long use of the site. How long might it take to polish granite like that from mere contact with the hands, feet and rumps of humans using the  mortars?

Indian rock art Kern County

Posted in Kern County | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Indian Wells Canyon, Southern Sierra

Indian Wells Canyon Kern CountyA view of the ridgeline running down from Owens Peak, which was named by Major General John C. Fremont after Richard Owens, a captain who served in his California Battalion during the Mexican-American War.

During the war Fremont captured the city of Santa Barbara in 1846 after a treacherous night-time crossing over the Santa Ynez Mountains in a rainstorm. Today there is a public campground adjacent the Santa Ynez River named in Fremont’s honor and hikers can follow Fremont Ridge Trail which follows the battalion commander’s historic route over the mountains. (Sierra Club; Walker A. Tompkins, Santa Barbara, Past and Present. [1975])

We put in a cursory effort to try and locate Native American rock art in Indian Wells Canyon, but came up empty, which isn’t a hard achievement to attain when looking for small stains of paint hidden along a monstrous mountainside.

We were rewarded, however, with awesome views of the Sierran landscape. Leaving the stark flatness of Mojave Desert, we climbed by four wheels up the long canyon ’til we reached high slopes covered in knobby granite and conifers and accented with the color of spring wildflowers.

Perhaps a few images may inspire readers to get out and explore places they’ve never seen, because you just never know what you may find even if you don’t find what you were looking for.

Indian Wells Canyon wildflowers and peaksIndian Wells Canyon hikes

Posted in Kern County | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Burro Schmidt Tunnel and Shanty (1906-1930s)

Burro  Schmidt TunnelThe entrance into the Burro Schmidt Tunnel.

“What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare?”

-Moby Dick, Herman Melville (1851)

Along US-395 a small unremarkable wooden sign informs drivers that yonder in the El Paso Mountains of the Mojave Desert can be found the “Burro Schmidt Tunnel.” And so we ventured.

Down a long winding, bumpy, whoop-riddled dirt road Stillman manned the helm of the “Perseverance,” as we followed uncertainly the poorly signed route, passing OHVs and Kalashnikovs, until we arrived at a rectangular shored, blackened opening leading into a nondescript hillside. There before us was a tunnel hand dug over the course of more than three decades through some 2500 feet of steely granite by William Henry “Burro” Schmidt.

The following, as written by David Stillman and shared here by permission, is the Ahabian story of an inexorable, madly obsessed man hellbent on completing the herculean task he set for himself, if for no other reason than to merely achieve his goal.

Burro Schmidt TunnelLooking down the Burro Schmidt Tunnel.

Burro Schmidt, the “Human Mole”

The desert breeds it’s own oddities, and the people who left them. Enter William Henry “Burro” Schmidt.

Schmidt was born in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. The year was 1871, and as he grew into a frail and small statured man, six of his brothers and sisters succumbed to tuberculosis. Fearing the same fate, Schmidt left for the hot, dry environs of California, arriving in 1894 at the age of twenty three.

He prospected in the mountains of Kern County, eventually filing claims in the desolate El Paso Mountains northeast of Mojave, CA. Here he set about his life’s work, and here Schmidt’s story gets incredibly weird.

Schmidt started mining, boring horizontally into a dirt capped mountain deep in the middle of egypt (a 4,400′ elevation mound in the El Pasos). In short order he encountered the solid bedrock under the mountain, bullet proof grey Kern granite. He must have encountered a couple veins of gold early on, or at least produced ore that assayed well because he kept at it, tunneling deeper into the mountain.

Burro Schmidt cabin El Paso Mountains“Burro” Schmidt beside his humble abode a short distance from his tunnel.

But Schmidt had a problem, he didn’t have a way to get his ore to the nearest smelters. At that time there were no roads by which he could transport the ore to Mojave or Garlock (20 miles away) where his ore could be processed, and the only route out of the mountains traveled through a treacherous canyon.

At this point Schmidt had few options. He had ore with gold in it, but no way to turn that into money. In this light one might understand how these circumstances could have led Schmidt to do what came next. The year was 1906.

At some point, presumably after frustrations with transporting his ore, Schmidt declared that he would continue tunneling straight through the mountain until he reached the other side. In this way he would devise his own bypass to the problem. So that’s what he did.

William Burro SchmidtSchmidt must have been a site to behold. He lived alone but for the company of two burros. He recycled the tins from his provisions to resole his shoes. His clothes were patched with burlap sacks. His cabin was a one room shanty with two windows, a door, and a secondhand hand wood burner which served to heat both the room and his food.

The shack, which still exists, was insulated on the inside with old newspapers, magazines, cardboard from foodstuffs, and holiday cards, all of which were tacked to the walls and ceiling to keep the heat in and the wind out. Most of these publications still remain in situ, many of which date back to the Great Depression.

Schmidt had no formal training in either prospecting or mine construction. He didn’t use any of the standard mining tools of the day, which would have included compressed air drills and jacks. Instead, he used only a pick, a shovel, a 4 pound hammer and a hand drill. On granite. Which is just ridiculous.

Later, after the mine and tunnel were underway, he began to use dynamite, again without a lick of experience or training. He came to the conclusion that short fuses save money, and would run out of the mine like the devil rode his heels every time he touched one off. On multiple occasions he showed up at neighboring mine camps injured, indicating he’d either cut the fuse too short or hadn’t run fast enough; probably both.

William Henry Burro Schmidt Schmidt was so frugal (a synonym for “broke”) that when the cost of kerosine for his single lantern rose, he would continue his work using only one two-cent candle per day. He survived numerous cave-ins during the excavation of his tunnel. Fortunately the shaft ran through solid granite because all indications are that he was too cheap to have purchased the timbers to properly shore up a less stable tunnel. He transported his ore out of the tunnel on his back before getting a wheelbarrow. Eventually he built a rail track and obtained a single ore cart.

In the 1920s a road was constructed through the nearby Last Chance Canyon which allowed an easy, downhill route into the desert. At last Burro Schmidt could safely transport the fruits of his labors. Here’s where reality becomes weirder than fiction. Schmidt, in his fifties by this time, and having tested his luck well beyond reasonable limits, should have settled down and started mining like it ought to be done. Nope. What makes Schmidt so perplexing as a human, and legendary in his time, is that he just continued doing what he’d decided he was going to do, digging his tunnel. His is an example where reasoned, rational intent does not conform to logic. Crazy as a soup sandwich.

William H Burro SchmidtSchmidt at work, the frail flesh of humanity versus the bullet proof granite of eternal creation. Note that he is not even wearing gloves.

By the time Schmidt saw daylight at the opposite end of his tunnel he was 67 years old. The year was 1938, and he had worked on his tunnel for 32 years. The tunnel was nearly 2,500 feet in length and he had removed roughly 5,800 tons of granite. As for the tunnel, he never did use it to move ore to Mojave or anywhere else, and upon it’s completion he sold the tunnel to another miner, Mike Lee, and moved elsewhere in the El Pasos.

William Henry “Burro” Schmidt died in 1954 at the age of 83 and is buried nearby in the desert town of Johannesburg. He was quoted as saying, “I never made a damn thing out of it.” In a monetary sense that statement may be true, but the irony is that his tunnel, bored through solid granite, will probably outlast many of the other monuments men have created for themselves. Ripley’s Believe It Or Not named Schmidt “the Human Mole,” and stated of Schmidt’s tunnel that it was “the greatest one-man mining achievement in history.”

 * * * * *

William Henry Burro Schmidt cabinSchmidt’s shanty.

Burro Schmidt cabin tin sidingRe-purposed siding made from tin containers, as similarly found on the historic homes of Bodie (Seen on this blog: Bodie, California Ghost Town).

Burro Schmidt’s one-room shanty remains standing a short distance from his tunnel. It is a rare time capsule of American history largely preserved as it was some 80 years ago thanks to desert conditions and the caring stewardship of the late Evelyn “Tonie” Seger, who with her husband purchased the site in 1963. Following Mrs. Seger’s death in 2003, however, the cabin has been neglected and ravaged by vandalism.

Inside Schmidt’s place is an impressive, veritable museum of Depression Era Americana in the form of newspapers, magazines, holiday cards and food cartons and labels dating from the 1920s and 1930s, which he had carefully nailed to the walls and ceiling as makeshift insulation.

Interestingly, some of the art found on these various labels tacked to the walls is the work of the West Coast printing titan of the era, the Schmidt Lithography Company of San Francisco, no apparent relation to Burro Schmidt.

“The art and business of printing in the San Francisco Bay Area are significant in the history of printing in the United States and have been an integral part of the cultural development of California.”

A Life In Printing: An Oral History, Ruth Teiser and Lawton Kennedy (2012)

“Schmidt Lithography Co. was once the largest printing company on the West Coast.”

The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco

Burro Schmidt cabin Depression Era magazineNote the National Recovery Administration (NRA) logo on this issue of Redbook magazine, which would mean the magazine dates from sometime between 1933, when the National Industrial Recovery Act was passed, and 1935, when it was, along with its ancillary policies and bureaucracies like the NRA, unanimously ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

Santurday Evening PostThe NRA logo also notable on each of these issues of The Saturday Evening Post

Saturday Evening Post 1934

Lucky Strike ad 1930sBurro Schmidt cabin newspaper 1936Newspaper from 1936

Arm and Hammer baking soda historic labelBUrro Schmidt cabin historic food labelBurro Schmidt cabin insulation Aunt Jemima historic pancake label Santa Claus Kellogg's Corn Flakes historic label Swift's Brookfield egg carton Delineator Magazine 1927 tomato cab label Saturday Evening Post 1931July 18, 1931

Sierra pure California Tonic tomato can label smart and final historic vintage tomato can label Quaker Oats historic vintage label Van Dyck cigars 1930s

American Legion Magazine Shasta Tea vintage label Goldenhead Milk Butter Colier's Magazine 1935 Liberty Magazine 1938 Golden State Butter Treasure Sardines vintage food label Lucky Strike vintage ad 1930sNothing like a Lucky straight to ease throat strain! Read the text: “Claudette Colbert tells how the throat-strain of emotional acting led her to Luckies.”

Burro Schmidt cabinThe interior of Burro Schmidt cabin thoroughly bespeckled with years of magazine and food labels. I’d venture to bet it actually looked fairly artful in its prime for what it was.

Posted in Kern County | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Steelhead Fishing, Santa Ynez River (1948)

Santa Ynez River tributaryA tributary of the Santa Ynez River which once was the spawning grounds of thirty-inch steelhead.

Seventy years ago the Santa Ynez River in Santa Barbara County was known in California as “the most productive of all the little steelhead rivers of the south.” Bump into or know the right senior citizen and they can tell you about hooking loads of arm length sea-run rainbow trout in the Santa Ynez River, incredible tales one might wish were the fanciful imaginings of a dreamer, because to accept that it once really happened hammers home the devastating truth about just how much has been lost.

In the following excerpt from his book, Steelhead (1948), angler and author, Claude M. Kreider, artfully writes of his passion for and the thrill of steelhead fishing on the Santa Ynez River in what would later be seen to be the twilight years of the fishery’s heydays. A photo of Kreider hauling in a 29 inch, 10.25 pound steelhead from the Santa Ynez River can be seen on this blog at the following link: Native Steelhead of Yore.

Santa Ynez River tributary streamLos Padres National Forest, Santa Barbara County

Immediately upon reaching the river we turned down the road which followed its shores through a wide farming valley toward the ocean. We saw a few hopeful anglers along the riverbank but went on to the beach, obsessed with the desire of steelhead coming in from the sea. A railroad trestle spanned a wide tidal lagoon from which the current slipped in a wide shallow channel down across the sand and into the breakers.

Claude M. KreiderThe tide was high, and we could occasionally see a great fish tossed up on the crest of the giant combers to be thrown up on the sand, where it struggled nobly through the receding waters to reach the thin apron of fresh water that indicated so surely that nature’s guidance had been true. The unfathomable mystery of it all was overpowering. I was enthralled, steelhead angler for life.

A few hopeful anglers and others with deadly grabhooks were trying for the struggling fish in the shallow water as they forged up toward the lagoon, and I turned away in disgust. So noble a fish deserves at least a chance to regain strength in the lagoon above and to be angled for by sportsman methods when it again can be a worthy antagonist and have a fair chance to pit its great strength and speed against light tackle. Happily, in later years fishing was prohibited in this shallow outlet of the river.

Santa Ynez River springStanding midstream in the Santa Ynez River, a watercourse that flows only intermittently yet was exceptional habitat for huge runs of oceangoing rainbow trout.

Far back up the river and by now late in the afternoon, I stopped and assembled my tackle. There was no possibility of using the fly in the turbid water, so I reluctantly impaled a bait of bottled salmon roe on a No. 6 hook with two buckshot for weight to carry it down toward the bottom. A fairly stiffish fly rod of nine feet seemed to promise a good fight were a steelhead hooked and, at least, was the only possible concession to my preference in tackle and methods.

Just where to try for these great fish in those long opaque pools and churning riffles? This was surely a guessing game for the uninitiated. I could not know how far upstream the fish might have progressed, whether they traveled steadily or stopped to rest at favorable spots.

But the trout fisherman does not forget early training or the hard-earned knowledge of general stream craft. So I stopped at a long narrow run of deep water that was fed through a churning white-water chute. Those black swirls and the backwash looked decidedly fishy with indications of a deep pocket just out of the main current.

Santa Ynez RiverA placid length of the Santa Ynez River.

I placed my bait in a likely spot and after a few more casts felt a light nibble, as if a baby six-incher were taking it. A too slow strike brought up my bare hook. This was uninteresting, for even fair-sized rainbows of my experience had been always voraciously violent on the strike. So I tried again, and again came that gentle tug and my answering twitch of the rod tip. Instantly my rod arched sharply, and I was fast to a veritable submarine of a fish, my first steelhead!

At once this warrior shot far down the current, boring and charging with tremendous power. A great deal of line had melted from my large reel, which fortunately I had provided with ample extra backing line else this, my first great steelhead, would already have been gone.

But the pressure of the whipping rod at last slowed the fish, and it came out of the water in a tremendous flurry of spray to fall back with a mighty splash. My heart must of been racing, and I know my hands now trembled acutely as I manipulated rod and reel. Here, you see, in this little river of the farmlands fought the largest trout I had ever hooked.

Santa Ynez River steelhead fishingMorning serenity on the river.

My fish now charged back upstream, worked deep, surged under a mass of streamside driftand was gone! Not much chance for another here, it seemed, but I lighted my pipe for solace and with renewed optimism tried again. And in that same magic, whirling series of eddies within a few minutes I was fast to another great steelhead.

This one ran straight down the river, as the other had done, placing a tremendous strain on my sharply arched fly rod, and so excited was I by now that I did not know whether to try and snub that wild battler or just let him go and try and keep up. Never in a fairly wide experience with fresh-water rainbows had I experienced such wonderful speed and power in a hooked fish.

I wondered, while stumbling down along the littered shore, if my ten-pound leader was strong enough, if that little No. 6 hook could have bitten deep enough to hold this monster fish.

Santa Ynez River trout fishingMirror images on a deep pool along the Santa Ynez River.

I gradually gained some line at last by simply outrunning my steelhead, then it turned back upstream, necessitating speedy cranking of the fly reel, which retrieves line slowly at best. And now back at the head of the pool we fought the battle to a finish.

My fish was slowly coming in. Gently I submerged my large lake net in the water and slowlyoh, so slowly and carefullydrew my prize over it.

Back at the car in the gloom of the winter evening I weighed my beautiful fish, a silver-sided female with steel blue back which registered just 9 1/2 pounds. And my long suffering wife, who, I suspected, had had little faith in my winter fishing before, was properly congratulatory.

Santa Ynez River fishing

Related Posts:

Native Steelhead of Yore on the Santa Ynez River

Salmon Choking the Santa Ynez (1896)

Santa Barbara County Trout

Posted in Santa Barbara County | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Fossil Falls, A Glacial Relic of the Pleistocene

Fossil Falls CaliforniaDavid Stillman scrambling up familiar territory, through the gullet of Fossil Falls and over the slick, water polished basalt.

Standing in the arid Owens Valley of California, beside an ancient dry riverbed that can barely be discerned amid cragged lava flows and sandy flats, I strain my imaginative powers trying to picture a lush pluvial environment, wherein tree-lined streams lead down from the distant, icy Sierran peaks poking into the sky and feed a powerful, fast-flowing river.

The sign before me describes the richness of a riparian landscape that is the opposite of what exists around me. Men, women and children, I read, carry on life’s daily activities enjoying the natural wealth of a bountiful land of verdure and abundant animal life. I look away from the sign and see heat waves, barren mountain slopes, fields of dark volcanic rock and much bare dirt and sediment with only a meager speckling of native plants that can barely be called scrub brush. The environment here has radically changed since the times thousands of years ago when humans lived along the shores of this now non existent river.

Fossil FallsLooking up the riverbed toward upper Fossil Falls.

Fossil Falls Owens Valley CaliforniaLooking over the precipice of lower Fossil Falls.

lower Fossil FallsLower Fossil Falls

Fossil Falls Owens ValleyLooking up the ancient Owens River toward the falls.

I’m at Fossil Falls, a pair of ancient waterfalls that have not flowed for at least 10,000 years. When lava oozed across the drainage channel the glacial Owens River carved its way through the volcanic rock creating a series of large falls. The basalt is slick and glassy, having been polished by the heavy sediment load carried by the turbulent prehistoric river. Rocks and boulders caught in vortices bored pits and deep round holes into the volcanic rock leaving behind a lithic sort of Swiss cheese formation, some holes large enough to crawl into.

Today there remains an extraordinary landscape of naturally sculpted, stark beauty. The traces of prehistoric humanity can still be seen in the form of millstone mortars, petroglyphs and even the rock rings that once served as foundations for dwellings. Obsidian flakes cast off from the crafting of tools are scattered all over the ground.

The following text is taken from the Bureau of Land Management:

AREA DESCRIPTION: Fed by the rains and snows of the last Ice Age, the Owens River once flowed from Owens Lake down through this narrow valley between the Coso and Sierra Nevada Mountain ranges. Several times during the last 100,000 years, the discharge from the Owens River has been great enough to form a vast interconnected system of lakes in what are now the arid basins of the Mojave Desert.

The rugged and primitive features of Fossil Falls are the product of volcanic activity. As recent as 20,000 years ago, volcanic eruptions poured lava into the Owens River channel. The erosional forces of the Owens River acted upon this volcanic rock, forming the polished and sculpted features that now can be seen at Fossil Falls.

EARLY CULTURE: Some 10,000 to 20,000 years ago the first human beings camped along the ancient rivers and lakes of the Mojave Desert. These prehistoric people harvested lakeshore resources and hunted large animals.

By 6000 BC, extreme aridity caused the last of these ancient rivers and lakes (including the Owens River) to disappear. The grasslands, marshes, and large mammals that had once flanked these lakes vanished. Prehistoric human populations may have partially abandoned low-lying desert areas in search of food and water in upland mountains areas.

WAY OF LIFE: Around 4000 BC, climatic conditions again shifted from the extreme aridity of the preceding period to the relatively moderate conditions that exist today. A cultural pattern was established that emphasized the use of a wide variety of desert plant foods that included both small and large mammals, reptiles, insects and waterfowl as well.

With only slight adjustments such as the additions of pottery and the bow and arrow, this way of life was still being practiced by the Little Lake Shoshone Indians at the time of the first European explorations of the Mojave Desert. Many of the archaeological sites at Fossil Falls are dated between 4000 BC and European contact in the 19th century.

Petroglyphs Fossil Falls CosoPetroglyph panel on rock face at center frame.

Fossil Falls petroglyph


Geology Underfoot In Death Valley and Owens Valley, Robert Phillip Sharp, Allen F. Glazner (1997)


Posted in Inyo County | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments