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Jefferson “secession” of 1941 was largely a publicity stunt

Boisterous and colorful man P.R. man Gilbert Gable, mayor of Port Orford, drew on the frustrations of the West Coast's remotest counties in an effort to get the state to invest in decent highways

An NBC promotional drawing of Gilbert Gable in 1931, for his radio show. (Image: Radio Digest Magazine)

Most Oregonians know about the State of Jefferson — in general concept, at least: a small group of Southern Oregon people got together in 1941 to proclaim a new state, made up of southwest Oregon and northwest California, called Jefferson; just as they got started, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor; and the idea just never got off the ground.

All of which is true enough. But it barely touches the real story of Jefferson — and it’s not even the most interesting part.

The fact is, the 1941 move for statehood was mostly a publicity stunt. It was crafted over drinks by two guys who seem right out of central casting for a Hollywood movie — a high-rolling, back-slapping business promoter and a hard-drinking, wildly imaginative newspaper man.

The newsman actually won a Pulitzer prize for his part in the affair. His name was Stanton Delaplane; he wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle.

The business promoter was a stocky, dynamic man named Gilbert E. Gable, onetime dinosaur egg hunter, movie maker, NBC radio-show star and (he claimed) Navajo Indian chief. In 1941, he was mayor of the tiny Oregon town of Port Orford and, for a brief and shining moment, governor of the State of Jefferson.

The promoter

Gilbert E. Gable in his office at the Trans-Pacific administration building in 1935. (Image: Alan Mitchell’s Port Orford Historical Photos archive)

Gilbert Elledy Gable was born in Pennsylvania in the late 1880s. Although he never went to college, he quickly found his way into public relations, and spent nine years as a publicity man for Theodore Vail’s Bell Telephone Company. During this time, under Vail's direction, Bell transitioned from the most hated company in the nation to one of the most trusted, publicly committed to using its market dominance to bring telephone service to the remotest outposts of America. That story is more than we can get into in this article, but it’s one of history’s greatest public-relations triumphs. And Gable was a part of it — although I have been unable to learn how big a role he played.

The Adventurer

The phone business must have been good to him, though, because after the war Gable became an explorer and amateur paleontologist — something it takes money to do. He discovered a vast assortment of dinosaur tracks in Arizona, as well as a lost ancient Indian village, and claimed to have been made an honorary chief of the Navajo people — a claim he backed up with a certificate “written in human blood.” He made a number of dinosaur-hunting expeditions to the Painted Desert area, until in 1929, the governor of Arizona ordered police to prevent “Dr. Gable” from removing any more fossils or artifacts.

He also made movies. In 1927, as vice-president of Bray Motion Pictures, he won publicity for the silent movie “Menace” by bringing a film crew down the wild Colorado River on a boat through the Grand Canyon, a feat that was breathlessly described in the papers as fraught with deadly peril.

The radio star

By the early 1930s, Gable had gotten involved in the new world of radio broadcasting with an NBC show called “Highway of Adventure” (sometimes listed as “High Road to Adventure”), in which he recounted spine-tingling moments from the previous dozen years of hunting for dinosaur eggs and exploring unknown landscapes. He also sought and won the hand of Miss Paulina Stearns, daughter of a wealthy Michigan timber family. And then, in 1933, he went to Port Orford — probably to search for the legendary Port Orford Meteorite. It was a historic moment indeed.

“Two years later, to the amazement of its 300 inhabitants, Gilbert Gable appeared at Port Orford, Ore., and formed six companies to promote it as the only natural deep-water harbor on the rugged coast between Puget Sound and the Golden Gate,” reports TIME Magazine in its somewhat supercilious 1938 article.

The empire builder

The town of Port Orford as it appeared shortly before Gilbert E. Gable came to town. (Image: Alan Mitchell’s Port Orford Historical Photos archive)

Gable hit Port Orford like a temperate-zone hurricane. He was convinced the nearby countryside was peppered with deposits of copper, gold and other resources, all covered over with billions of board-feet of old-growth timber. The harbor, having no river to complicate navigation with a bar to fight through, was just a million-dollar jetty away from becoming the perfect port … but, of course, it would also need a railroad line.

For a few years things went very well indeed. “Since 1935, Gilbert Gable has wrought such changes in Southwestern Oregon that the region has been called his ‘empire,’” Time Magazine reported in April of 1938.

But: “Last week, Emperor Gable was dethroned by the Interstate Commerce Commission,” the article continued.

It was the railroad line that took Gable down — the railroad line, and the sea. Just three months after Gable (now mayor of Port Orford) dedicated the harbor in a splendid ceremony before dignitaries from all over the state, the massive new Trans-Pacific and Port Orford Dock and Terminal Line breakwater collapsed in a huge storm. A temporary pier was soon built, but it didn’t afford the kind of protection the harbor would need, and Gable’s backers weren’t willing to invest in a railroad line to service a harbor that might not be capable of functioning as more than a temporary port of refuge.

In 1938, an ICC examiner quashed the whole plan, opining that Port Orford was never going to be an important center of commerce, and pulling Gable’s “certificate of convenience and necessity” — and with that, his permit to build the railroad line.

Desperation sets in

Now Gable was caught in a catch-22. Without a railroad connection, his backers wouldn’t help him finance the necessary repair and beefing-up of the harbor jetty. Without a beefed-up jetty protecting the harbor, the ICC wouldn’t issue a permit to build a railroad.

An increasingly desperate Gable looked to the state for help in getting highways improved, so that the mining, logging and shipping companies that he’d founded could get their produce out to markets over land.

But politicians in Salem could barely be bothered to even notice the tiny port city of under 1,000 residents that still cherished hopes of superseding Portland’s harbor. Roadbuilding dollars remained in scarce supply.

By fall of 1941, Gable was watching his dream slip from his fingers for want of a railroad link. He started thinking about ways to bring pressure on the state to help him out. He started advocating for Curry County to split off from Oregon and become part of California — a suggestion that seems to have yielded amusement, alarm and ridicule in roughly equal measures from the governments of both states, but nothing more.

The suggestion did bring something else, though. It brought a visit from one of the West Coast’s most enterprising and colorful newspapermen — Stanton Delaplane.

Gable and “Del” hit it off immediately. Soon, the two of them were cooped up together in a cozy office with a bottle of 150-proof rum as a hard winter rain pounded the roof, making plans that would soon blossom into an apparently serious proposal to secede from the state outright.

We’ll talk about those plans and their implementation next week.

(Sources: Laufer, Peter. The Elusive State of Jefferson. Guilford, Conn.: Twodot, 2013; “Gable’s Gold Coast,” TIME, 04 Apr 1938; Gable, Gilbert. “Thrills,” Radio Digest, March 1931; Los Angeles Times, 1927-1930)