NEWELL, Calif. — It's nearly impossible to envision now, scanning the dusty, vacant lots that butt up against California Highway 139. But beginning in the spring of 1942, this was one of the state's largest settlements north of Sacramento.
A community of nearly 20,000 people, it had more than 1,600 buildings spread across 7,400 acres, with vast vegetable fields, a pig farm, a newspaper and a school.
Surrounded by a 10-foot-high barbed wire "man-proof" fence and 28 watchtowers, and guarded by a battalion of soldiers and eight armored tanks, the Tule Lake Segregation Center near the Oregon border was the nation's largest Japanese American internment camp and in time became the only one of the 10 in the country that was designated for internees considered security risks.
Most of those internees were known as the "No-No boys," because they had answered "no" to -- or refused to answer -- a two-part loyalty question that asked internees to renounce the Japanese emperor and agree to serve in the U.S. armed forces.
Little remains at the site today except a barren concrete jail, a weather-battered carpenter's shop and two aging motor pool buildings.
A six-year effort to designate the site a national historic landmark culminated earlier this month with a ceremony at the camp. But former internees, the Modoc County Board of Supervisors and the National Park Service, among others, have been campaigning almost as long for the camp to become a state or national park or be turned over to a nonprofit group.
Proponents of preservation warn that unless action is taken soon, one of the most significant vestiges of World War II-era American history will pass beyond repair as the buildings continue to decay.
"It is viewed as the most important of all the camps, in terms of the story it tells," said Jon Jarvis, the park service's Pacific regional director. "The jail is considered the most important remaining building of all the camps. Everybody recognizes it's time to do something."
Within a few years of the camp's closing in the summer of 1946, the once-sprawling settlement was dismantled. Some buildings fell victim to weather and time. Much of what remained was scavenged: The jail's metal bars were salvaged for scrap; the internee barracks were cut in half and given to homesteading veterans; and an officers club was converted into a grocery store.
Even the headstones from the camp's cemetery were taken as souvenirs and the cemetery was converted into a landfill.
But some artifacts remain. The water and sewage systems designed and built by the internees are still used by households in Newell. Although many of the camp's original structures are intact, they have been moved and are scattered around the Tule Lake basin. The once-menacing guard towers are used as storage sheds, pump shacks and backyard playhouses.
Park service officials say there are more buildings remaining from Tule Lake than at all of the other internment camps combined.
Today the park service operates two former internment camps: Manzanar, near Bishop, Calif., designated a national historic site in 1992; and Minidoka, near Twin Falls, Idaho, a national monument since 2001.
The campaign to preserve Tule Lake has been complicated by strong local objections to any expanded federal presence in a region where anti-government sentiments have run high recently. A number of residents say they don't object to more protection for the camp, even if that means making it a national park, but they don't want to see an expansion of federal land ownership in the area.
The park service has requested congressional authorization to study Tule Lake's historic and cultural value, the first step in establishing a new park or monument. The county Board of Supervisors has endorsed the request.
Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Roseville), who represents the area, has begun work on a bill authorizing the study, a spokeswoman said last week.
Much of the work that would go into the study was completed during the landmark designation process, according to Jarvis. He said that among the purposes of the study would be gauging community interest in the camp, determining whether local sentiment favors a park and, if so, ascertaining how big it should be and what facilities ought to be included.
Most of the land that made up the camp is divided among about 300 private owners. The 45 acres included within the boundaries of the historic landmark are owned by the California Department of Transportation and the federal Bureau of Reclamation.
Craig Dorman, superintendent of nearby Lava Beds National Monument, favors protection for the Tule Lake camp. He said that despite efforts by Caltrans, some structures are deteriorating and only minimal repairs have been made.
"The destruction and vandalism have been ongoing since the end of the war. The future of this camp rests with the politicians and the people here. This could be a real loss, to our national history and the rich history of this region," he said.