Fork in the Road : There's Talk in Lassen County About Becoming Part of Nevada

Times Staff Writers

Tourists who occasionally creep along the 60 miles of U.S. 395 between here and Hallelujah Junction might look at the hilly, winding, two-lane road as a symbol of California's rugged, pioneer past.

But Lassen County drivers who use the narrow, twisting "blood alley" see it as another sign that California is run for the benefit of Los Angeles and other big cities, often at the expense of less-populated parts of the state.

So, after months of unsuccessfully pleading with Sacramento for even minor safety improvements along the road that has claimed 16 of their neighbors and injured 200 others in the last two years, Lassen County civic leaders are talking about trying their luck elsewhere--by becoming a part of Nevada.

"Secession by Lassen County to Nevada may be our only way to get a safe highway," contends Duane R. Cole, 30, city administrator for Susanville, the 7,000-citizen urban hub of northeastern California and the seat of Lassen County.

'Pleaded for Years'

"Caltrans ignores our plight," he said. "We have pleaded with Caltrans for years to widen the highway from Hallelujah Junction to Susanville from two to four lanes, but our pleas fall on deaf ears."

Although both the Susanville City Council and the county Board of Supervisors have put off formal consideration of secession until next month--after waiting to see what comes of a Chamber of Commerce plan to put crosses along the road where people have died--informal proposals have gotten a lot of attention in both states.

It is not the first time that frustrated, rebellious Northern Californians have dreamed of splitting up California.

There was an especially vocal proposal in 1941, when residents of Northern California and southern Oregon openly and earnestly advocated founding their own new state, to be called Jefferson. The issue then: bad roads.

Even before Lassen County revived the specter of secession over its own bad roads, visitors to rural reaches of Northern California could see secessionist bumper-stickers on pickup trucks and hear secessionist slogans in bars and council meetings.

What really irks Northern Californians, said Irving Schiffman, a political science professor at California State University, Chico, is the sheer number of people--and, thus, political power--concentrated south of the Tehachapi Mountains.

"We always fear that no matter what we want," Schiffman said, "Southern California has the votes to do whatever they want."

'Unsafe at Any Speed'

In Lassen County, the latest hot spot, residents mutter that while billions are being spent building another freeway in Los Angeles, Caltrans cannot afford even rudimentary safety measures for their main highway--a road the Susanville City Council recently declared "unsafe at any speed."

In the last two years, there have been 313 vehicle accidents on the road, resulting in the 16 deaths and 218 injuries.

"That may not seem like much in Los Angeles, where millions of people use roads and highways," said Jack Pastor, 47, president of the Lassen County Chamber of Commerce, "but in a rural county with only 24,000 people, it is having a major impact on our lives."

California Highway Patrol Officer Frank Arias, 45, said that in his 20 years stationed throughout the state, his current job in Susanville has convinced him that California 395 in Lassen County is one of the worst that he has encountered.

"It isn't right the state keeps this road in this condition," he said.

Plea by Board, Chamber

Lassen County supervisors and the Chamber of Commerce both have asked state transportation officials to immediately post a daytime "headlights-on" zone on 395 and add two more lanes as soon as possible.

The pleas were fruitless.

"There aren't enough traffic or accidents to meet the maximum warrants for a headlights-on zone," said Richard L. DeRosa, Caltrans' district director in Redding, in neighboring Shasta County. "The overall accident rate is equal to the expected statewide accident rate for rural two-lane roads."

The cost of expanding the two-lane highway to four lanes is even less cost-effective, he added.

Pastor, the chamber president, is nonplused by the resistance to even the simplest, cheapest suggestions.

"Turning us down is unreasonable," he said. "There is no acceptable level of death and injuries."

Confounded by the state's refusal to improve his city's link to Hallelujah Junction, Reno and the world, City Administrator Cole, in the best tradition of mad-as-hell Northern California residents, urged the City Council to approach Nevada.

Exchange Proposal

"Nevada might be happy to widen the highway in exchange for Lassen County's water," he wrote in one memo, suggesting that the council ask aloud: "Nevada, are you interested in negotiating?"

"Sure we are," came a quick reply in a Las Vegas Review-Journal editorial headlined "Rescue Lassen County." It was a good opportunity for residents of the Silver State to tweak their Golden State neighbors, and Nevadans were more than eager to do so.

"They would shed a state income tax, corporate tax, inheritance tax, unitary tax and franchise tax," the editorial observed. "They would pick up clout at the state legislative level, becoming one of 18 counties rather than one of 58. It would become the fourth-most populous county in Nevada (rather than the 46th most populous in California).

"It's a good idea, although highly unlikely that the secessionists could gain the needed approval of both state legislatures plus that of Congress."

To quit one state and join another, a county must first obtain the approval of both states' legislatures, the concurrence of Congress and the President's signature, said Humboldt State University history professor Stan Mottaz.

"The county first would have to demonstrate popular support by its citizens to secede by a vote or some other manner before a state legislature would even begin to consider the proposal," Mottaz explained.

It's Happened Before

Such a split may seem whimsical, but it is not unprecedented--at least not if one looks back far enough in history. Some northern Massachusetts counties split off in 1820 to form Maine, Mottaz said, and several western counties of Virginia in 1863 formed West Virginia.

Lassen County, which lies along the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountain ranges, has long had close ties to Nevada. Reno, 87 tortuous miles from Susanville, is the closest metropolitan area.

When the area was settled in the 1850s, people in present-day Lassen County and Washoe County in Nevada formed their own territory, passed laws, elected officials and called the area Nataqua, an Indian word for woman.

"When the territory of Nevada was first organized, Lassen County was part of it, and the founder of Susanville, Isaac Roop, was elected Nevada's first provisional governor. Susanville is named after Roop's daughter," said Tim Purdy, 30, of Lassen, author of two histories of the area.

What is now Lassen County was claimed by both California and Nevada until 1864, when Nevada became a state. But it still took a Plumas County, Calif., posse a daylong shoot-out, the wounding of one man and a threat to burn down the entire town of Susanville to finally convince the most stubborn of Lassen County settlers of their California citizenship.

A few current residents are nearly as resolute as their ancestors.

"We'd have more clout if we were part of Nevada," Purdy said. "Caltrans won't do anything until more people are killed on 395. They need a higher body count. That's a morbid way of putting it, but true."

Much Speculation

All of Lassen County is buzzing with speculation about seceding and becoming part of Nevada. Although most people do not think it would or could happen, more than a few are urging their neighbors to give it serious thought.

"The future of Lassen County within California can be predicted to be one of diminishing importance, diminishing attention and diminishing benefits," wrote Jack Siemer in a recent column in the Reno Gazette-Journal, reminding friends and neighbors of Sacramento's "indifference to our needs" and the emigration of young people looking for jobs.

"Therefore," he concluded, "the alternative of withdrawal from California should be given serious and thoughtful consideration."

The idea still may be a hard sell with some people, who are put off by some Nevada traditions, such as legalized gambling and prostitution.

"If I wanted to live in Nevada," said Pam Patty, 29, a motel housekeeper in Susanville, "I'd move there."

But other people, such as Shirley Raulinaitis, 55, a secretary who has lived in Herlong for 21 years, favors becoming part of Nevada--and said most of her friends feel the same way.

As another secessionist, George Wingate, put it: "We're on the other side of the mountain. Sacramento forgets we exist."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
75°