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Straddling a line in Oregon (or is it California?)

Blurred border complicates life for small town

NEW PINE CREEK, Ore. -- This is a town strangely divided, a tiny slice of eccentricity along a lonely highway at the long-ignored edge of two neighboring states.

Because of a surveyor's blunder more than a century ago, the California-Oregon border runs right through the middle of this unincorporated backcountry town, home to 250 residents equally distributed on both sides of the line.

As a result, peculiar things happen in New Pine Creek.

California-side residents carry drivers' licenses with Oregon addresses, because the town's post office boxes are on the Oregon side. Come tax time, Californians say, explaining that little logistical oddity is difficult in Sacramento.

Calls to Oregon are considered local, but there's a toll to telephone 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., 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 children across the 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 less expensive. 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, bureaucracies.

The town isn't the only community of two minds along the California lines. To the southeast, South Lake Tahoe shares a border with 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 a half-mile to the north.

If that's true, most of the town lies in California. But don't tell that to 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, when he remembered that his license was valid only in Oregon. So the minister moved the function to the middle of the road and conducted the wedding as planned.

The town is now home to farmers, ranchers, and retirees, but during California's last gold rush, in 1912, New Pine Creek had 5,000 residents, with seven bars to serve thirsty prospectors. All were on the California side, since Oregon was a dry state back then.

The border issue dates to a survey performed by Daniel Major, who in 1868 traversed the Goose Valley.

Major tried to establish the state line along the 42d parallel; that wasn't the way it worked out.

Some say Major was a heavy drinker -- champagne bottles were 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 readings with a sextant on only three occasions, historians say.

The result: His border estimate veered back and forth across the true line by as much as a half-mile.

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 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 US Supreme Court.

''You know what that fight was all about, don't you?" asked a 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 revenues if oil or gas were discovered in coastal waters. And the purview was now in question. Officials 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. Sergeant Steve Yates has voiced concern that investigations could be compromised if Oregon officers pursue suspects into land that's technically California.

''We're not from California, so we have no enforcement powers in that state," Yates said of the neighboring police. ''I'd like to know where the line is really drawn."

The Oregon Department of Transportation says it plans to consult California officials for their input on the matter.

In New Pine Creek, Yates's pursuit seems to have stirred up unwanted geographic ghosts. Most residents say they want to leave the border alone.

''Every so often somebody decides to stir things up," said Sally Burneikis, who owns an antiques store right alongside the border.

Burneikis 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 noted confusion along the border. A few years ago, a car on the California side of State Line Road and another vehicle collided near US 395. The car was knocked a few feet into Oregon, and authorities there charged its driver with drunken driving.

An Oregon judge dismissed the case, ruling that the driver had been in California at the time of the accident.

An Oregon lawyer, Dave Vandenberg, said: ''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.

Jim Spence, for instance, tells a tale that pretty much sums up life in New Pine Creek. Spence was recently stopped in Sacramento for a bad light on his truck trailer. The officer asked about the Oregon address on his California license.

''Here we go again," he said. 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 officer handed him back the license, and said with a sigh: ''Just get that light fixed."

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