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Townsfolk Reside in States of Confusion

The simple country life is actually quite complicated in New Pine Creek, split in two along California's border with Oregon.

June 26, 2005|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

NEW PINE CREEK, Ore. (Or is it California?) -- This is a town strangely divided, a tiny slice of eccentricity along a lonely highway at the long-ignored edge of two neighboring states.

Thanks to a surveyor's blunder more than a century ago, the California-Oregon border runs right through the middle of this unincorporated backcountry burg, home to 250 residents equally distributed on both sides of the state line.

As a result, peculiar things happen in New Pine Creek.

California-side residents carry driver's licenses with Oregon addresses because the town's post office boxes are on the Oregon side. Come tax time, Californians say, try explaining that little logistical oddity to the humorless bureaucrats down in Sacramento.

Calls to nearby Oregon are considered local, but there's a toll to phone Alturas, the nearest town in California, 42 miles distant.

And Californians can forget about overnight home delivery: When they say they live in New Pine Creek, Calif., stubborn computers reject their request. Because to the outside world, there is no New Pine Creek in California.

For their part, Oregonians until recently had to sneak their kids across the state line to the town's only school, which sits a few steps from the border on the California side.

If you shop at the town's only general store, on the Oregon side, you don't pay sales tax, and vehicle registrations in the Beaver State are much cheaper. But over in the Golden State, you pay much less in property taxes.

With toes in two states, New Pine Creek finds itself scrutinized by two abutting and often contradictory government bureaucracies.

The town isn't the only California community of two minds. To the southeast, South Lake Tahoe also shares a border with out-of-state cousin Stateline, Nev.

Still, in New Pine Creek, things are just different.

And here's the oddest part: Nobody in town can quite agree where the state border lies. That demarcation is currently drawn along State Line Road, but some insist the official boundary is actually a half-mile north.

If that's true, most of the town actually lies in California. But don't tell that to proud Oregonians.

"It's a tale of two cities, only we're just one little town," said Tom Carpenter, whose Broken Era Ranch covers 248 acres on the California side. "This is definitely a strange place to live."

A preacher recently arrived at a home on the south side of State Line Road to perform a wedding but then realized his license was valid only in Oregon. So the minister moved the function to the middle of the road and brought the wedding off as planned.

The town is now home to farmers, ranchers and retirees, but during California's last gold rush, in 1912, New Pine Creek boasted 5,000 residents, with seven bars to serve thirsty prospectors. All were on the California side, since Oregon was still a dry state back then.

The border issue dates back to a survey performed by Daniel Major, who in 1868 traversed the Goose Valley.

Major tried to establish the state line along the 42nd parallel.

But that's not the way it worked out.

Some say Major was a heavy drinker -- champagne bottles were later unearthed at many of his campsites, according to historical accounts. Others cite his rudimentary surveying equipment.

Traversing more than 300 miles of untamed country to trace a line from the 120th meridian to the Pacific Ocean, Major took astronomical readings with a sextant on only three occasions, historians say.

The result: His border estimate veered back and forth across the true line by up to half a mile, looking more like the bite marks made by a set of crooked teeth.

For years, Major's goof remained a secret. Then in 1976, a California state boundary official noticed Major's surveying errors. Sacramento sent a delegation to Salem, the Oregon capital, suggesting that officials there had somehow made off with a valuable hunk of their state.

The story made national news when the California attorney general's office recommended taking the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"You know what that fight was all about, don't you?" asked resident Herb Watts as he stopped by the general store one morning to buy nails. "It was all about oil. Greed and oil."

At stake were potential revenues if oil or gas were discovered in coastal waters whose purview was now in question. Officials finally decided to leave the line right where it was.

A generation later, questions over the border are again being raised -- this time by an Oregon state trooper.

Sgt. Steve Yates worries investigations could be compromised if Oregon officers pursue suspects into territory that's technically California. "We're not from California so we have no enforcement powers in that state," he said. "I'd like to know where the line is really drawn."

The Oregon Department of Transportation plans to consult California officials for their input on the matter.

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