By Christopher Hall
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.
Full story here.
Learn more about this little rebel state at www.jeffersonstate.com