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US 395, Part 16: Lassen County (Susanville to Modoc County Line)

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Susanville, population 13,541 [2000], is the pleasant jewel of Lassen county and also its county seat. US 395 does not directly enter it, but we will (mostly because I was badly in need of lunch and batteries by this time) along CA 36. It is a moderately sized, friendly city that, like so many along US 395, is totally out in the middle of nowhere. In the present time, its days of logging and mining are largely behind it and today Susanville's major industry is the clink; the High Desert State Prison is a few miles out of town, and we'll go by it, opened in 1995.

The city's history, however, is much more colourful than its modern gentle sleepiness would indicate. Susanville is named for the daughter of Isaac Roop, the same Isaac Roop we talked about in Part 12, who became the territorial governor of Nevada. Why would he be involved in California?

[Isaac Roop] The answer is quite complex and interesting. Although Peter Lassen (see Part 15) was the first explorer of this area, in 1851 William Noble started taking settlers over a route passing through the Honey Lake valley and several, including a younger Isaac Roop, decided simply to stay put. (The trail Noble established would become highly influential and will be discussed later in this Part.) Roop was born in 1822 in Maryland and reared as a farm boy. He married his tutor, Nancy Gardner, in 1840 and moved to Ohio, where he was devastated by her loss ten years later and became widowed with two sons and his daughter Susan. Possibly motivated by grief or desperation, he pulled up stumps for California that same year and tried to rebuild his life, only to have it lost to a fire in 1853 after nearly pulling it back together. It was then that Roop retreated to the mountains and to Honey Lake, in which Lassen had put down roots some three years before, where he concentrated on his own backcountry holdings and nearly single-handedly erected the burg of Rooptown which he would later name for his daughter (his fort-slash-stockade is still standing in downtown Susanville, off Main St, and we will look at it presently).

By this time, California was well-established and claimed the settlement as its own under Plumas county. This probably wouldn't have mattered much to the local inhabitants were it not for the county's attempt to levy and collect tax revenue, and in 1856, Lassen and Roop spearheaded an effort to declare the region as the independent Nataqua territory as they believed themselves not subject to either California, or to the Utah territory to the east. Nataqua, a Paiute name, operated in semi-autonomy with its own elected officials and public works for several years, with Lassen as its president. It was during this time in 1861 that the new territory of Nevada was established by sectioning of Utah, and Roop himself assumed the position of territorial governor after Lassen's death in 1859.

Prevailing surveys of the region would indicate that California was indeed correct; Susanville was on the western side of the official state boundary and thus part of California. For that matter, however, the Esmeralda gold strikes and the town of Aurora (the original declared county seat of the newly established Mono county) were on the eastern side, but neither Nevada nor California was interested in relinquishing its hold on either city and insisted that both belonged to each one. Despite California's threats, Governor Roop heeded the pleas of the settlers who resented the Plumas tax collectors, and organized the disputed region into the new Roop county with Susanville as its seat. A complex and increasingly acrimonious series of legal challenges ensued between the two counties, culminating in an actual shootout, the so-called Roop County or Sagebrush War, on 15 February 1863. Holed up in Roop's old fort, Roop county residents traded shots with Plumas county officials in a nearly comical and mostly inaccurate back-and-forth of bullets.

After two days of pointlessly wasting ammunition, Plumas county sheriff E. H. Pierce negotiated a deal with the Roop county locals and the matter returned to arbitration, which commissioned a new survey to verify the previous one. Unfortunately for the outraged residents of Susanville, the new survey upheld the old one and left them firmly back in the hands of Plumas county, which they had been trying to escape in the first place. Rather than start shooting again, however, the citizens took their grievance to the state legislature and finally got their wish to create their own independent county from the disputed section of Plumas and a portion of Shasta county, named Lassen in Peter Lassen's honour, in 1864. The two states would finally ratify the border in 1865.

As for Roop himself, while unable to absorb his old home into the state he once governed, he seemed content in the knowledge that it still maintained some manner of independence and returned to Susanville in 1865. There, he became Lassen county's district attorney for two terms and stayed in the town that he had built and loved until his death in 1869. His daughter Susan resided in the town as well until her own death in 1921, and both were buried in the town's cemetery. There is a charming mural depicting father and daughter in downtown Susanville on Lassen St, which we will also visit in this Part.

US 395 to the Modoc county line is, once again, mostly one-lane-per-direction. There are few passing lanes and no true sections of expressway. As before, its course has been minimally realigned from its historical routing.


Back to the CA 36/US 395 junction. CA 36 was one of the original 1934 signed state routes and runs more or less along its original routing between US 101 on the coast, south of Eureka, and its eastern terminus here at US 395. It is an important arterial through many of the more rural regions of northern California.

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80 miles to Reno, looking at the intersection from US 395 SB. We'll turn right so that I can reprovision, and take in a little of the route on the way.

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Detour: Susanville (CA 36)

City limits a couple miles north of the US 395 junction, crossing over the Susan River (also named for Roop's daughter). US 395 has its own Susan River crossing we will come to later. The bridge postmile is R26.74, so we are on realigned mileage; I'll discuss this in a moment.

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The local Wal-Mart. I figured I owed it a picture, since without it, there wouldn't have been any more (I was totally out of batteries and the camera was dying).

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LasCo A27 (Johnstonville Rd), a little further into town. Remember this road as well.

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Modern downtown Susanville on CA 36, Main St. CA 36 is the main drag through the town.

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Junction CA 139 at Ash St. CA 139 crosses some very lonely territory before joining CA 299 (old US 299) near Adin and then splitting off in Canby as the west leg of the Emigrant Trails Scenic Byway, finally terminating at the Oregon border near Tule Lake. We will come back to the Scenic Byway designation in Part 17. Tule Lake was another of the Japanese internment camps during WWII, similar to Manzanar in Part 4.

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Some of the signage in Susanville is very old, including these parking and traffic control signs along CA 36 that date back to when the California State Automobile Association (AAA) was signing auto routes instead of the Division of Highways (today's Caltrans). The CSAA, and for that matter the ACSC in Southern California, haven't put up signage on state routes since 1947, although this might have been a holdover of the city signage that they continued to post until 1969 (1956 for the ACSC). Here is a nice chronology of California traffic signs.

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[Downtown Susanville, 1950s, 68K.] If we turn around and look back down the street, we get a view not unlike the one Jervie Eastman took in the 1950s as shown in the postcard at right (click for a 68K larger version). Note the enlargement of a state shield in the upper left. This was undoubtedly CA 36.

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On Lassen St is this very touching mural of father and daughter, Isaac and Susan.

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Close-up.

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Roop's fort still stands on Weatherlow St, north of CA 36, as the William H. Pratt Memorial Museum. It is the oldest structure in Susanville, built in 1854 as a waystation for traveling emigrants. The building was entered into the National Historic Building Registry in 1959.

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During the Sagebrush War, nearly 100 men (!) crammed into the buildings which were then called Fort Defiance, although that number may have been an optimistic local overestimate. This is the main fort. Here is a picture of Fort Defiance from some decades ago.

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Two buildings exist on the premises, the Fort itself and what was probably a trading post extension. For a time the Fort was also the post office.

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Heading back to US 395. And for the record, the plants in my office, what few are left after the kids have destroyed them, are plastic.

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END CA 36 at the junction. Also note the turnoff for Peter Lassen's grave, at the light.

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End Detour

Back on NB US 395. Shortly after leaving the CA 36 junction, we come to Johnstonville itself, another one of the little local towns. LasCo A27 runs to the north.

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Distance signage leaving Johnstonville and our first mileage to Lakeview, OR (Part 18).

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[Susanville before and after US 395/CA 36 realignment, 1964, 16K.] [Former US 395/CA 64 Susanville/Johnstonville junction, 62K.] Johnstonville Rd, but after giving up A27 to Center Rd.

Johnstonville Rd and LasCo A27 are relevant to us because we were on realigned miles during this segment. As shown in the map at right (click for a 16K enlargement), US 395 originally proceeded NB as Johnstonville Rd from modern US 395 south of the present-day CA 36 junction northeasterly to this intersection; CA 36 then proceeded north on Johnstonville Rd into Susanville as what is now partially A27. This route is now partially obliterated by the local airfield. The old junction when it was still in use can be seen in the thumbnail photograph at right (click for a 62K enlargement), including a little US 395 shield in the background. The junction and the realigned portions of CA 36 were built in 1964.

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As proof, end realigned miles just past the junction.

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NB US 395.

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Let's hope you're not seeing this sign through bars on the window.

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Road to the prison and the facility in the distance.

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NB US 395 towards Standish.

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PM 66.

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Gentle farmlands and relatively flat country dominate east of Susanville. This won't stay that way for too long.

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Entering Standish; the population count of 85 seems rather optimistic.

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The Standish post office. Standish is named for Plymouth Colony founder Miles Standish (1584-1656), immodestly christened "The Hero of New England," who came across with the Pilgrims on the Mayflower in 1620-1 to establish Plymouth in what would become Massachusetts. He earned the epithet by slaying an insolent Indian chief with the chief's own knife as a threat against the tribe attacking the Wessagusett colony in what would become Weymouth (admittedly, by most accounts the colony in question had exhausted the patience of the local Indians by begging and stealing from them, so they may well have deserved it). For better or worse, his actions saved the Weymouth colonists but got him blackballed from the Pilgrims for what they believed was unchecked rage; as such, he moved afield to co-found the town of Duxbury in 1632 and remained there as an assistant magistrate until his death. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow immortalized him as a romantic figure in "The Courtship of Miles Standish" (1858), but there is no factual basis for his wooing of Priscilla Mullens as the poem depicts. The Wikipedia biography is worth reading.

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The other end of LasCo A3 (Part 15) at PM 70, original miles. Again, similar to its exaggerated distance signage in Part 15, A3 is signed here as "going to Reno" when in fact it just ties into US 395 on the other end too.

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Passing the A3 junction.

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Distance signage leaving Standish.

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Between Standish and Litchfield is our own crossing of the Susan River.

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Much smaller here, it is still an important water source for the local ecosystem.

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Litchfield, named for the pioneer Litch family. Even smaller, its population count is barely 35.

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Passing through Litchfield, we reach the other end of LasCo A27, going back west through Leavitt back to Susanville.

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NB US 395 leaving Litchfield.

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Once out of Litchfield, we start on 35 miles of uninhabited area towards Ravendale.

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Marker for the Noble Emigrant Trail, named for William H. Noble (sometimes rendered as William Nobles) who established in 1851 what would become the major trans-mountain trail through this region. Far superior to Peter Lassen's much more arduous earlier route (see Part 17), Noble's trail ran from the Humboldt River in Nevada down the valley to approximately this point and then west over the mountains to Shasta near the modern city of Redding. Its establishment was welcomed as a tremendous improvement on what had been previously a highly treacherous journey and was trekked by many notable early pioneers and settlers of the period, including the famous Isaac Roop as you will recall from this Part's introduction. Nevertheless, Noble owed a debt to Lassen that is frequently unacknowledged today as Lassen's earlier route through the Valley must have included at least part of Noble's later trail: indeed, it was roughly from this same point that Lassen sighted Honey Lake while searching for Gold Lake in 1850 (Part 15), part of the journey that led to his settlement in the region. We will talk a little more about Lassen's trail in Part 17.

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CM 80. Still getting those little mileposts.

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BLM sign in the valley. Eagle Lake is about 25 miles west as the crow flies and sits along CA 139 and LasCo A1, the lowest-numbered route in the California county route system.

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NB US 395.

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More interminable valley grassland.

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Almost all of this southern portion is original miles (here at PM 94.0).

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[Secret Valley ascent, 1953.] Closer to Ravendale, the terrain becomes a little more rolling instead of deadly flat. We start the first portion of an approximately 1,000' ascent; after this entry into the southern end of the Warner mountain range, there is a small summit-like pass. In a tip of the hat to my parents' head church elder, Shinn Mountain is to the east (7,562').

This section was an especially difficult one to construct: not only is the terrain obviously rough and the location remote, but the volcanic lava beds and hills were impervious to milder methods of excavation and proved trying to equipment and men alike. Originally a rough dirt track, it was first upgraded in 1949, and again in 1952 after which it was finally paved. The final section here was finished in 1953. Due to the difficulty of construction and the lower traffic counts, the 1953 road remains the modern route and the ascent looks pretty much exactly the same as it did then in the California Highways and Public Works section at right.

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Distance signage on the grade.

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PM 100.0 cresting the "summit." The Warner Mountains make up part of the western border of the western United States' arid Great Basin, covering most of Nevada and Utah as well as portions of California, Oregon, Idaho and Wyoming. The Great Basin is so named as it has no natural outlet to the sea, consisting instead of a series of various contiguous watersheds making up one large intermountain plateau region. Mono Lake (Part 8), Lake Abert (Part 18) and the Harney Basin (Parts 18 and 19) are watersheds within the Great Basin, as well as Death Valley, Walker Lake in Nevada, and the Great Salt Lake in Utah. The Surprise Valley is immediately on the eastern side of the range (more about that in the next Part).

The Warner Mountains, as well as the Warner Wilderness, Warner Valley and Warner Highway (Part 18), are all named for Brevet-Capt. William Horace Warner, an Army officer killed in 1849 while fighting in a local Indian skirmish in northern California.

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[Old and new Ravendale US 395 alignments, 1953, 31K.] The extent of services along what is an extremely lonely alignment, as we descend from the summit into Secret Valley. One can appreciate what earlier motorists had to contend with on the comparison of the early and 1953 routes on the Division of Highways map at right (click the thumbnail for a 30K, 1109x368 enlargement in a new window). The twisty old alignment still survives, but is mostly impassable dirt track today, since some things never change.

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Meadow region leading into Ravendale.

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Ravendale, all of 20 stragglers. There's no cell reception here, so use the phone if you need. There's also a small airstrip outside of town.

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This is how it is to live miles from nowhere.

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Distance signage north of Ravendale.

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North of Ravendale, we start picking up realigned miles.

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There is a parallel one-lane route next to the highway which seems to be the only organized road in the region, and may partially represent the old alignment. A railroad line also runs parallel to US 395, which we'll talk about in a second.

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Termo, former terminus of the Nevada-California-Oregon Railroad, the modern alignment of which we have been paralleling since Ravendale as shown above (Termo likely came from a contraction of 'terminus' or 'terminal'). The N-C-O RR grew out of the Western Nevada Railroad Company, founded 1879, which changed its name to the Nevada and Oregon Railroad Company the following year. After some initial financial troubles, the first spike of the N-O RR was driven in Reno in 1881 (followed by a stockholders' meeting four months later in which two men were shot!), and first operations began in 1882. However, the N-O RR went belly up too and became the Sierra Valley and Mohawk Railroad in 1885, which got a little further into California but itself stalled in 1887 and reincorporated as the N-C-O RR in 1888. Finally, track started getting laid out northbound in earnest, passing through Doyle (Part 15) the same year, and finally reaching Termo in 1900. This was supposed to be the route's end and a town was set up for support purposes, but internal squabbles in the railroad's administrative office forced the route to press onward to Madeline, 14 miles to the north. Termo faded as quickly as it had began and today its population numbers only 26.

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[Termo CA 36 proposed routing.] We return to "original" miles. Termo is also the terminus for an obsolete unconstructed routing of CA 36, defined in 1959 as part of LRN 20 that ran from CA 139 north of Susanville to Termo. The Termo-Grasshopper Rd in the 'middle' of Termo might have been adopted at one time for this purpose, but may not have ever been the official alignment. It was formally retracted in 1988, having never officially been part of the route or even built, but still appears as proposed on my 2003 official state highway map on a routing that doesn't seem to correspond to any road in the region.

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Entering Madeline, with some of the leftover railroad ruins just south of the town. In 1901, the N-C-O RR bought the Sierra Valleys Railway Co. and continued operations under that name. As the SVR, the railroad passed by Termo and roosted in Madeline in 1902. However, Madeline would not remain the railhead's final spot either; further expansion pushed the SVR (N-C-O RR) to Alturas (Part 17) in 1908 and finally Lakeview, OR (Part 18) in 1912. Eventually, the route would be sold off or dismantled as standard gauge rail took over and all narrow gauge service ended in 1928 after the N-C-O RR was taken over by the Southern Pacific RR. This is a very complete description of the Nevada-California-Oregon Railroad.

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Madeline itself is nearly as small as Termo today, with a remaining population of approximately sixty. Originally named for a local settler's daughter killed in an Indian raid, considerable effort was made when the railroad reached the town to encourage local agriculture. Although livestock shipping became locally important during the railroad's existence, farming never really caught on (especially given the high altitude and frequent below-zero temperatures in winter). Most of this faded when the railroad was sold off.

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Some of the remaining dwellings.

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Turnoff to Adin on the Modoc county line. This road is very badly maintained by comparison.

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Distance signage leaving Madeline.

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Overlooking Moon Lake to the east, fed by the south fork of the Pit River (Part 17), and the South Warner Wilderness Area. This portion of US 395 is fairly old, dating back to 1939.

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Ascending to the Sage Hen summit, we find the official abbreviation for those little mileposts painted on the road. Here's the spray paint ...

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... and just past it, here's the CM postmile.

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Pass over Sage Hen Summit (5,566').

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BLM signage passing through the summit.

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Dropping altitude rapidly.

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Descending into the Pit River valley.

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Modoc county line.

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CM 138.98 just before the Modoc county line, the closest thing to a terminal postmile for Lassen county.

Continue to Part 17

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