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Jefferson County: The State that Almost Seceded

Once upon a time, in the remote stretches of Northern California and southern Oregon, a few rebels got together and compared notes.

State of Jefferson barn near Yreka, Calif., image
Photo caption
A barn celebrating the almost-State of Jefferson, sits in a field near Yreka, Calif.


Barreling north on Interstate 5 in the late afternoon, with the Siskiyou Mountains before me slipping into shadow and lofty Mount Shasta glowing orange in my rearview mirror, I suddenly find I'm no longer in California. Not so strange, perhaps, except for one thing: Oregon still lies a good 20 miles ahead.

In a pasture just off the highway, the words STATE OF JEFFERSON appear, painted in eight-foot letters on a barn roof. A few minutes later, I pass a sign confirming that this stretch of road, traversing a 2,500-foot-high valley of hay farms and cattle ranches, is litter free thanks to the State of Jefferson Chamber. On the car radio, an announcer reminds me in his soothing baritone that I am listening to Jefferson Public Radio. Clearly, I have entered some real-life Twilight Zone called Jefferson.

A quick check of the history confirms that Alaska was the 49th state to enter the union. But if events had unfolded a bit differently, the State of Jefferson—carved from the border counties of Siskiyou, Del Norte, and Trinity in California and Curry in Oregon—might have beaten the northern giant to the punch.

Partly serious bid, partly publicity stunt run amok, the Jefferson movement spawned impassioned rallies, highway blockades by a self-appointed border patrol, and the election of a governor who posed for inauguration day photos with a bear named Itchy.

Today in these counties it's unlikely that you'll encounter serious secession sentiment, or even a tame bear. You won't be stopped by the border patrol—only by natural wonders like the rushing jade waters of the Smith, the last major undammed river in California. During my four-day drive through modern Jefferson, I pulled my car over plenty of times. I gawked at soaring bald eagles. I stood in awe before an army of insect-eating, cobra-headed California pitcher plants rising from a misty forest floor. I felt the spray of water where rivers meet ocean surf, and I ate salmon within view of the boat that caught it only hours earlier. And all along the way, I learned about this almost-state that was born in a small Oregon town.

With its peaceful, slightly funky feel, Port Orford, Ore., hardly seems a cradle of revolution, but in 1941 it had Gilbert Gable at the helm. Gable described himself as the "hick mayor of the westernmost city of the United States" when he met Stanton Delaplane, the San Francisco Chronicle reporter who penned a series of Pulitzer Prize-winning stories about the Jefferson movement. Gable was actually a transplanted Philadelphia public relations man who had headed west with a wad of dough and big plans for extracting the region's timber and ore and for transforming his sleepy new hometown into a bustling seaport. One of the things that stood in his way was bad roads, many of which were no more than oiled dirt lanes that turned to sludge in rain and snow.

Perhaps hoping to get a good new road or two, Gable announced in October 1941 that Curry, Josephine, Jackson, and Klamath counties in Oregon might merge with California's Del Norte, Siskiyou, and Modoc counties to form a new state. "It was more publicity stunt than serious secession movement at that point," says Jim Rock, historian and Jefferson expert. "After all, under the U.S. Constitution, they had to get the approval of Congress as well as the legislatures of both states."

Port Orford today has a small fishing fleet and an unusual open-water port, where boats are hoisted out of the ocean rather than tied to a dock. The population is a mix of fishermen, old-time lumbermen and ranchers, and newly arrived retirees. A good number of artists live and work in the area, selling pieces at galleries and gift shops like Port Orford Pottery, which is open "most days" from April to October, "unless the fish are biting."

Drive slowly through town or walk the bluffs in Port Orford Heads State Park to take in the stunning views up and down the coast and you'll see that booming development, as Gable envisioned it, never came. "We get visitors throughout the year, but mostly in the summer," says current Port Orford mayor Gary Doran, who is as low-key as Gable was hard charging.

Visitors come to stroll along sandy Battle Rock Beach, the site of a fierce 1851 fight between pioneers and Rogue Indians, or to explore Rocky Point tide pools that brim with flowerlike anemones and deep purple and bright orange starfish.

Humbug Mountain State Park attracts scuba divers and windsurfers, as well as those who are up to the challenge of a hike through old-growth forest to the mountain's 1,756-foot ocean-side summit.

Marine history buffs tour the 1870 Cape Blanco Lighthouse, the westernmost beacon on the Oregon coast, and visit the decommissioned, wood-shingled Port Orford Lifeboat Station, now a maritime museum that tells the story of shipwrecks, monster storms, and the people who braved the tempests to rescue others.

Apart from its populous seaside towns like Brookings or Gold Beach, where you can hop a jet boat for an excursion up the Rogue River, mountainous Curry County isn't much more developed than it was back in 1941. U.S. Highway 101 remains the only significant road in the county, and as I drive it I marvel at the open views of the sea, the broad, unpeopled beaches strewn with driftwood, and the mammoth offshore rocks that look as if they'd been scattered like gravel by some ancient race of giants.

Crossing over one river mouth after another—the Winchuck and Chetco, the Pistol, Rogue, and Elk—I am reminded that each one still flows through a mountainous landscape that is almost as impenetrable as it was to Gilbert Gable's ambitious dreams.

Roads caused the fuss in 1941, so it's ironic that the only federal recognition Jefferson has re-ceived came in the form of a road. Designated in 1992, the 108-mile State of Jefferson National Forest Scenic Byway runs between Yreka, Calif., and O'Brien, Ore., along California Highway 96 and U.S. Forest Service Primary Route 48. The road takes about three hours to drive without stops.

If you begin in California, the byway loops and coils through the wild Klamath River Canyon to an old mining town called Happy Camp, where it heads north over 4,812-foot Grayback Summit into Oregon, passing stands of prized Port Orford cedar and the rare, weeping Brewer's spruce. "Unlike its predecessor back in '41, the road is nicely paved with asphalt, not promises," said the late Brian Helsaple, who promoted modern Jefferson through a lively Web site (

It is fitting that the byway lies mostly in California. Soon after Mayor Gable made his momentous 1941 announcement, the secession scene shifted south to Siskiyou County, whose residents were even more fed up with their roads. In November 1941, border county representatives met in Yreka, the secessionists' provisional capital, and the Siskiyou Daily News held a pick-a-name contest. Jefferson beat out Orofino, Bonanza, Discontent, and tongue twisters like Del Curiskiyou and Siscurdelmo. A state seal was created out of a gold pan with two X's painted on the bottom, symbolic of the area's having been double-crossed by Salem and Sacramento.

Klamath, Jackson, Josephine, and Modoc counties eventually opted out of the movement. Lassen joined, then quit; Trinity jumped on the bandwagon. Shasta sent word it was interested if Redding were named state capital. Yreka's proponents of the 49th state replied with a bottle of castor oil and a note to "start your own movement." In the end, only Siskiyou, Trinity, Del Norte, and Curry counties signed on.

On November 27, 1941, a group of young men, brandishing deer rifles for dramatic effect, began stopping traffic on U.S. 99 south of Yreka. They handed motorists a Proclamation of Independence stating that Jefferson was "in patriotic rebellion against the States of California and Oregon" and the state would "secede each Thursday until further notice." On December 2, Gable suddenly died, and five days later, after Judge John Childs was elected provisional governor, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Patriotic Americans at heart, the rebels turned their attention to the war effort and the secession movement expired.

Yreka, with 7,300 souls today, is still by far the largest settlement in Siskiyou County. The former gold-mining town is a slow-moving place, though the pace picks up in July and September when mountain bikers arrive for races. On a shady side street, the Siskiyou County Courthouse occupies part of the lawn where Judge Childs had his picture snapped with Itchy before a throng of Yrekans gathered to celebrate his inauguration. Inside the courthouse, an impressive display of gold found in the county includes

West Miner Street hasn't changed much in appearance since 1941, when it was the scene of a boisterous, torch-lit inaugural parade. The three-block commercial strip retains a varied mix of businesses with 19th-century storefronts, from a Mexican restaurant and a vintage soda fountain to a hardware store, gift shops, and a well-stocked bookstore. From the nearby 1889 Yreka depot, the Blue Goose steam train begins its seasonal excursions through Shasta Valley to the old railroad town of Montague. With nearby Mount Shasta providing a surreal 14,162-foot backdrop, the three-hour trip takes you over the Shasta River and across working cattle ranches established more than 100 years ago.

Between Yreka and Happy Camp, I drive across a series of handsome steel bridges from the 1930s—engineering marvels for their time but a bane to 1941 miners because their 10-ton capacity couldn't handle ore-laden trucks. Here and there I spot the Jefferson double-X on a mailbox or the side of an old general store like Quigley's, in the town of Klamath River. In Seiad Valley, state of jefferson is painted on a rusting bulldozer parked just off the road.

The Klamath River Canyon is a wild place with rocky walls that plunge to the river. Swaybacked mountains to either side limit your view of the sky to a narrow strip overhead, and the farther west you drive the greener the landscape becomes, with creeks and tributary rivers like the Shasta and Scott rushing from left and right. "Anglers come to the Klamath from September to March for salmon and steelhead," according to local fishing guide Wally Johnson, who says the river is especially sweet in the fall. For nonanglers, there are scenic float trips, which sometimes include sightings of river otters, and rafting trips during hot summer months that promise high-adrenaline rides along a rougher stretch of river.

Happy Camp is a slightly tumbledown hamlet that lies at the heart of Karuk ancestral territory, and the tribe maintains a visible presence. The hardware store is tribe owned, and at the People's Center, a tribal cultural facility and museum that opened last year, it's easy to see why Karuk weavers are renowned for their beautiful geometric-patterned baskets. The town is also home to an iron statue of the Sasquatch, which marks the beginning of Bigfoot Scenic Byway. "A fair number of artists, musicians, and writers have settled here, as well as people who just got tired of the rat race," says Bob Schmalzbach, who came from Santa Cruz County a year ago, leaving high tech behind to open JavaBob's coffee shop.

In a way, Happy Camp is representative of modern Jefferson—a place populated by independent-minded people glad to be living in a remote enclave surrounded by natural beauty. In his 1941 inauguration speech, "Governor" John Childs declared that the State of Jefferson "is a natural division geographically, topographically, and emotionally." More than 60 years later, Childs's words still ring true. Jefferson may have missed its chance for statehood but, as folks around the border will tell you, it became instead a state of mind.

Photography courtesy of Visitor7/Wikimedia Commons


This article was first published in September 2003. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.