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US 395, Part 17: Modoc County (Likely and Alturas to Oregon State Line)

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Modoc county (MOH-dok) is US 395's final routing within California. With 9,350 [2000] inhabitants, it is the most uninhabited of US 395's routings in the state (save Sierra, though US 395 does not linger long there). It was created in 1874 from a piece of Siskyou county to the west, and named for the fierce Indian tribe that inhabited the headwaters of the Pit River in the centre of the county. The etymology of the name is disputed; some believe it to mean 'head of the river,' while others hold it comes from the Klamath word moatakni, meaning southerners, viz., the tribe living to the south of the Klamath Indians. The ferocious reputation of the Modoc was well-deserved and their relentless war against the encroachments of the white man was so pitched that the region was once called the "Bloody Ground of the Pacific." The hostilities would not cease until 1911, when the last of the Modoc were ultimately killed or banished to reservations; the famous Modoc War of 1872 was fought between the US Army and a band that had returned from one of these reservations, led by the charismatic Captain Jack (Kintpuash), who refused to live on the Klamath reservation with their former tribal enemies. Despite their smaller numbers, the Modoc would prove very difficult to dislodge and as a show of strength Captain Jack would kill opposing Gen. Edward Canby in 1873 while ostensibly negotiating a peace treaty. Nevertheless, the Army prevailed and within two months Captain Jack would hang from a tree for his action. The remainder were sent back into exile in Oklahoma, where their descendants live today. Canby was proposed as a name for the new county shortly after its incorporation, but in an interesting historical contrast, was rejected by the residents in favour of the tribe instead.

Modoc's county seat is Alturas (population 2,892 [2000]), along the Pit River, and the county's only incorporated city. Alturas had long since existed in pre-colonial times as the Indian village Kosealekte. The modern city, however, traces its roots back to Dorris Bridge, named for the nearby river crossing in turn named for James Dorris, the first white settler of the region, who built it. Established in 1869, the city was renamed Alturas (Spanish for 'heights') in 1874, and became the new county's seat.

Portions of Peter Lassen's trail (see Part 15) remain in Modoc county, part of his early attempt to create his own inland empire in the mold of John Sutter. More northerly than the Donner, the approximate route of Lassen's trail diverged from the Truckee trail near what is now the Rye Patch Reservoir in Nevada, today's Lassen Meadows, north through the Surprise Valley and from there to Lassen's 6,100' pass (the so-called Fandango Pass) through the Warner Mountains; it then descended down to and along the Pit River and Deer Creek Pass to the upper Sacramento valley and near the town of Vina, along US 99 (now CA 99) between Chico and Red Bluff, where his property lay.

Lassen's trail was no shortcut, and despite the lower elevation, was hardly an easy passage. In addition to the significant detour, especially for settlers heading for Sutter's territory, the Modoc and Paiute were quite hostile to these incursions of the white man into their ancestral lands and the trail was beset by considerably harsher weather and travel conditions. The apocryphal stories of the Fandango Pass' naming illustrate this best; one such tale holds that a band of settlers, happy they had made it through without incident, started to dance (the "fandango") and so unnerved the Modoc, baffled by the sight of white men dancing merrily in the middle of the night, that the Indians massacred every last one of them. By 1850, the trail had acquired a deservedly bad reputation and had largely fallen into disuse. After the development of the 6,350' Cedar Pass 15 miles southerly (where modern CA 299 runs today) and the establishment of William Noble's Emigrant Trail we partially followed through the Honey Lake valley in Part 16, the one that Isaac Roop would travel and a true short cut saving nearly 200 miles, Lassen's trail was finally and ultimately superseded. This new route and its branches would remain primary methods of entry in the region until the railroad finally crossed the Donner Pass along its respective trail in 1867.

[US 299 in Alturas, 1955 and 1966.] US 395 in Modoc county is again mostly one-lane-per-direction with minimal realignment from its historic routing. In Alturas, we will meet US 299 (now CA 299), one of the historic US 99 spurs of which only US 199 survives. As signed in 1934, US 299 started in Arcata, CA, on the Pacific coast and ended in Alturas for a distance of 295 miles; this is shown in the 1955 map inset at left. Modern CA 299, however, crosses through Alturas along US 395 for a short section and then branches off to cross the Cedar Pass through Cedarville towards the Nevada state line, where it trails off into dirt. This extended routing is shown in the inset; a branch comes off in Cedarville southeasterly to become NV 447 along Gerlach and Empire in northern Washoe county. (This branch, Surprise Valley Rd, is very similar to Lassen's route. It extends north as well, becoming Fandango Pass Rd and intersecting US 395.) Despite the Cedar Pass road considerably pre-dating US 299's original alignment, it was not part of its original routing and was not added until US 299 was retired as part of the Great Renumbering in 1964.

[NV 8A in Nevada, 1976.] In both the 1966 inset and the 1976 inset at right, the dirt road CA 299 becomes in Nevada seemed to be signed as NV 8A. This is interesting as it was entirely possible for US 299 to have remained a US highway had AASHTO extended it into Nevada: after all, it would have met one criterion for survival (existence in multiple states) and the alignment in Nevada would already have been state highway to boot. Most likely NV 8A perished after the 1978 Nevada state route renumbering, but there are some local reports that for some period afterwards it was signed as NV 140A. This is plausible as the 1976 map shows NV 8A "spurring" from NV 140 and NV 140 did keep its number after 1978, but if NV 140A did exist as such, it did so only very briefly as no map evidence I have from the period demonstrates it. In the present day the road remains dirt, and no longer appears as state highway in the Nevada route log.


ModocCo 65, a little ways north of the county line into Likely. Modoc county does not participate in the official state County Signed Route program, so there are no lettered county routes here; despite that, it seems that just about every road in Modoc county has some sort of county route number designation as we'll see. They are not signed anywhere near as well as Lassen county's were.

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Likely, population 200.

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Our CM postmiles have now reset.

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Modoc county also has a number of junctions with National Forest highways which are very well signed, many with advance signage like this one. We will look at some of them in turn since they are not often this well-demarcated.

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The local school, from the driver's window.

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The townspeople have really had a lot of fun with the town's name. It is rather whimsical.

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Junction FH 64, as signed previously. Also note the distance signage back to Susanville, and north to Alturas.

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First distance signage for Burns, OR (Part 19) leaving Likely.

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NB US 395.

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Between Likely and Alturas, US 395 passes through the Modoc National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1961 as a sanctuary for migratory waterfowl in the Dorris Reservoir and other watered lands fed by snowmelt from the Warners. It is approximately 7,000 acres in size.

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Crossing the south fork of the Pit River. The Pit River's brusque and almost threatening name comes from the grisly, deep conical pits dug by the Modoc with spikes at the bottom used to impale unwary bears and deer who happened by; they also were convenient for trapping hostile Indian invaders, and probably got more than a few incautious Modoc in the process as well.

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A fortuitous shot looking across the fork at the bird flocks taking off from the water.

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Part of the Dorris, and distantly in the background the railroad. This portion of US 395 on the west end of the Modoc NWR is realigned, probably done sometime in the mid 1950s. Old US 395 is today discontinuous, following the railroad as County Road 115 until it trails off into a poorly maintained dirt road through the wetlands, emerging on the other end east of Alturas as BIA Road 79 and County Road 56/Parker Creek Rd into Alturas proper. Due to its variable suitability for travel I have not elected to cover it here and I only note it for reference.

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A strange wall of basalt columns borders the road on the northern side of the valley.

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Crossing the railroad as we enter Alturas.

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Alturas city limit.

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[Alturas at the North Fork crossing, 1940s, 98K.] The southern portion of the city is heralded by the Pit River north fork crossing, as shown on the Jervie Eastman postcard at right (click for a 98K larger version). Compare the speed limit sign in the modern 2007 picture with the older black one in Eastman's photograph.

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The north fork, a little less wild than its southern cousin.

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Downtown Alturas.

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Some of the railroad ruins exist here as well.

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The local school.

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Approaching CA 299.

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Junction CA 299 (old US 299). Old US 299 terminated here, as we mentioned in the introduction, but present-day CA 299 continues on with US 395 to the east. We turn right as CA 299/US 395. This is also our junction with the eastern leg of the Emigrant Trails Scenic Byway carried on CA 299 (for the western leg, see CA 139 in Part 16), so named in honour of Noble's and Lassen's respective emigrant routes in the region.

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Leaving town. We are still traveling, more or less, on Lassen's trail (except in reverse, heading back to the Fandango Pass).

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This old distance signage used to greet us, which I'm keeping in the photoessay because it's button copy, it has the old kilometre flirtation, and the modern retroflective crap has and is neither.

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PM 25.0 leaving Alturas, demonstrating this is legislatively US 395.

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Crossing the Pit River.

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The two routes aren't co-signed for very long, as a few miles out of town, CA 299 makes a break for the Nevada state line.

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Turnoff. Just past the turn-off, there is an Old Cedarville Hwy on NAVTEQ (see Google Maps) that parallels CA 299 for some miles.

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Looking back, with US 395 and CA 299 co-signed, and Redding on the distance signage for CA 299 travelers.

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Distance signage leaving the junction. At this point, US 395 continues alone as the easternmost leg of the Emigrant Trails Scenic Byway. This section of US 395 from the CA 299 junction to the Oregon border was not paved until almost 1950.

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An arresting straight-cut through the rock acts almost as a mighty gateway, clearly a later engineering feat; the old road is only visible at intervals beside us in the gully to the immediate west of the road.

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The terrain is more rugged with small mesas at the tops of hills.

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Junction FH 30. This is a loop route feeding the eastern portion of the Modoc National Forest. We'll see its northern terminus in a bit.

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(Its alignment here is actually ModocCo 118, but don't tell anyone.)

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Continuing into the valley.

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Some of the county routes are even suffixed.

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Oh, my. There might be two cars on the road at once in this area. Drive carefully.

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The small burg of Davis Creek.

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Junction FH 48 north of Davis Creek. This route actually proceeds westerly towards the southern end of Goose Lake.

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Continuing NB US 395.

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Starting the summit ascent between valleys, this one leading towards the beautiful Goose Lake.

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Ascending the grade.

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Goose Lake, facing north.

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Overlooking the lake, this time west. It is a large alkali lake, much less so than Mono (Part 8), but maintained in the same general natural manner. Because it is west of the Warners, it is not part of the Great Basin watersheds.

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PM 51.

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Northern terminus of FH 30.

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Signage for Fandango Pass Rd (FH 9). This was the general area where Lassen's trail deviated east to cross the Warners.

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11 miles along difficult road is more of a detour than I had in mind, so we wave goodbye to those unfortunate travelers and continue NB.

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Distance signage, showing us five miles from the state line (New Pine Creek sits on it). This is also the first distance figure for Pendleton (Parts 22 and 23).

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PM 57.

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Junction FH 2 (which is also ModocCo 2, as it happens), with an abused trailblazer.

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Our first signage for Oregon.

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New Pine Creek is the largest of these small towns clustered around Goose Lake at approximately 260 inhabitants.

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It straddles the state line, but without fanfare, you'll whizz right by it without knowing. There's no warning except for the glaringly different signage standard (as demonstrated by the street sign), and the change in asphalt. Contrast this with this Jervie Eastman 1953 photograph, clearly showing an Oregon US shield and marked boundary.

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Facing SB, though, we see another blue Welcome to California, and the final PM count for Modoc county (PM 61.56). Note the older style US 395 shield still up here; there aren't many left.

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First Oregon shield and distance signage. Man, I miss the cutout shields already. Note how sparing Oregon is with font size and sign real estate (especially compared with Nevada and California).

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Finally, Welcome to Oregon.

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Looking SB, we see a nice little thank you for people leaving the state.

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Not quite as romantic as the Eastern Sierra Byway, but this alignment of US 395 is still a byway (in this case, the Oregon Outback). We'll take any kind of compliment we can get as we head north.

Continue to Part 18

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