Townsfolk Reside in States of Confusion
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.
In New Pine Creek, Yates’ pursuit has stirred up unwanted geographic ghosts. Most residents want to leave the border alone. They’re happy with their identities. Californian or Oregonian, they say, they’re all “New Pine Creekans.”
“Every so often somebody decides to stir things up,” said Sally Burneikis, who owns an antiques store on the border. She pointed to the window. “As far as I’m concerned, that state line is right out there. That’s where it’s been, and that’s where it’ll stay.”
But Yates notes confusion along the border.
A few years ago, a car on the California side of State Line Road collided with another vehicle at the intersection of U.S. 395. The car was knocked a few feet into Oregon, and authorities there charged its driver with drunk driving.
An Oregon judge dismissed the case, ruling that the driver was in California at the time of the accident.
Said Oregon lawyer Dave Vandenberg: “We’ve always suspected that some people live there to keep one foot in either state, to decide which way to run if the law comes calling.”
Differing state laws on each side of the border have traditionally kept inspectors busy.
Until the two school districts signed an agreement last year, regulations forbade parents from schooling their children across the border.
Oregonians who wanted their kids to attend the closest elementary school often sneaked them across the line, ducking California authorities who waited outside the school looking for cars with Oregon plates.
The scrutiny went both ways. Californians who wanted their teens to attend high school 14 miles into Oregon rather than bus them 42 miles south often created fictional addresses north of the border.
California authorities still routinely check homes south of State Line Road for cars with Oregon plates, looking for Californians who register their vehicles in Oregon, where fees are lower.
Fish and game laws are also head-scratchers.
In Oregon, anglers can fish for a redband trout considered endangered a short cast away in California. In Oregon, deer with any size antlers are fair game, while California has stricter rules.
When townsfolk decided to raise funds for a new community center, they created a nonprofit corporation in Oregon and now must apply for a business license in California.
Still, folks put up with the oddities of life along a state border where the nearest stoplight is 108 miles away (in California) and the nearest Wal-Mart two hours distant (in Oregon).
Burneikis embodies the loyalties people feel to their side of New Pine Creek. Last year, after her divorce, her ex-husband got the house, which is on the Oregon side, forcing the 64-year-old to rent a home two houses south of the border.
Now she’s a refugee.
“I’ve lived in Oregon all my life,” she said. “I miss it over there. I’m moving back as soon as I can.”
Jim Spence tells a tale that pretty much sums up life in New Pine Creek.
Spence was recently stopped in Sacramento for a bum light on his truck trailer. The officer asked about the Oregon address on his California license.
“Here we go again,” he thought. Then he explained the New Pine Creek puzzle.
The officer went back to his cruiser but soon returned. He asked again about the address and Spence restarted his story.
Suddenly the cop handed him back the license, sighing: “Just get that light fixed.”
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Life in a border town
- There are two governors, two state capitals and two sets of highway patrolmen.
- From the California side, telephone calls to nearby Oregon are free but those to the nearest California town are toll calls.
- There’s no sales tax on the Oregon side and vehicle registration is cheaper. But Californians pay lower property taxes.
- Anglers can fish for redband trout on the Oregon side. The fish is considered endangered in California.
Sources: Times reporting, Graphics reporting by John Glionna
Los Angeles Times