Tuolumne County’s Road to Nowhere: Hang ‘Em High Way?

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman March 1, 2013 01:08

“It doesn’t exactly roll off your tongue.”

So said one critic when the Tuolumne County staff in November suggested naming a short road leading to the new Law and Justice Center site “Justice Center Drive.”

County supervisors delayed their decision for a month, professing to be open to more engaging, mellifluous suggestions from the public. More than 30 ideas rolled in and, after some consideration the board, yep, named the road Justice Center Drive.

The unimaginative logic: “That’s where it goes.”

“That” is 50 acres off of Old Wards Ferry Road, about a mile away from the 1898 downtown Sonora courthouse, which could become a museum.  This acreage, county officials tell us, will in decades to come accommodate more than $300 million worth of buildings, including a new court complex, juvenile hall, probation office, jail and quarters for the sheriff and DA. So, no, you don’t want trifle with the name of a road leading to this legal Xanadu.

hang-em-high-way vf

The road to nowhere, across the Sonora Bypass from Wal-Mart

So relegated to the circular file were Decree Drive, Second Chance Road, the Green Mile and, my favorite, Hang ’Em High Way. So were Corral Court (a jail and juvenile hall are part of the planned center), Law and Order Lane and The American Way. Also thrown out: Sacramento Road (perhaps a nod to where the cash for this multi-million-dollar center is theoretically coming from), Field of Dreams Drive (perhaps an acknowledgment of how likely or unlikely state funding might be) and Gold Standard Road (perhaps hinting that a reopening of our rich mines is the only way we’ll pay for this center).

Joining names unlikely to be seen on a street sign anytime soon are My Way Or The Highway, Litigation Lane, Arbitration Alley, Plea Bargain Parkway and  Habeas Corpus Court – all of which I made up.

One wag suggested Nixon Road, to commemorate a president who adroitly escaped his own day in court. But road officials here are wary of duplicate names, and Tuolumne County already has a Crooked Lane.

Others proposed that the road be named for local dignitaries, ranging from the county’s first sheriff, George Work, to its most recently retired judge, Eric DuTemple. But putting the word “Work” on a street sign on the way to the office could encourage U-turn absenteeism. And, given DuTemple’s politics, the judge’s road would have only right turns.

Gary Cooper Drive was also nominated, evoking the drama of “High Noon” and Old Western-style justice. Yes, “High Noon” was filmed in Columbia, but would Cooper be happy having his name on a road to this center of 21st Century justice? After all, in its shiny new halls “High Noon” arch-villain Frank Miller might strike a plea bargain and escape with a few weeks of work release program.

Also, County Supervisor John Gray warned against naming the road for “any person,” arguing that “it can lead to hurt feelings over the potential names that are not chosen.” He didn’t mention anything about hurt feelings over really boring names that are chosen.

There is, however, a case to be made against colorful road names: Their signs are often stolen.

Those marking Redneck Ridge Road, Big Foot Court, Whiskey Creek Road, Wild Oats Trail, Rattlesnake Gulch Road, Jackass Ridge Road, Hells Hollow Road and a few others, said the Public Works Department’s Duke York, have proven prime candidates for theft.

“The more interesting and unusual a road’s name is, the more often its sign is stolen,” said York. “So there’s some resistance to crossing the line into colorful.”

That color is seldom crossed, reveals a quick review of the nearly 1,500 public and private roads whose names the county either came up with or approved. Most of those names are unremarkable to the point of boredom. Key exceptions are dozens of roads named for mines, gulches, creeks, ditches and diggins from our colorful past.

Sugar Plum Lane is not one of those, but its story is worth telling:

More than a decade ago, a rookie subdivider not only gave that name to a dirt track in rural Columbia, but got the Public Works Department buy into it. He’d divide his property into a few lots, call the tract Sugar Plum Ranch and invite would-be buyers to skip merrily down Sugar Plum Lane to have a look.

Over my dead body, countered Ron DeLacy. Literally: “Can you imagine calling 911 and asking them to send an ambulance to Sugar Plum Lane?”  said Ron, over whose property the road to Candyland runs. “I’d rather die first.”

So he launched a campaign among his neighbors to rename it “Whiskey Ditch Road,” supposedly for a real mining ditch dug by 19th Century workers who were paid in rotgut after the mine’s cash ran out. Tuolumne County blew DeLacy off, but Google Maps some years later asked, “Why not?”

So ask online directions to Ron’s neck of the woods these days, and up will pop “Whiskey Ditch Road/Sugar Plum Lane.”

columns-of-columnsYes, it’s an unwieldy six-word bastardization that will never fit on a sign. But I’ve got an answer:

Sever “Sugar Plum Lane” and give it to the county for its new entrance road. The name would not only say something about the administration of justice in the politically correct 21st Century, but would cheer the inmates and young delinquents who may someday live there.

After all, it’s pretty tough to say “I’m doin’ hard time on Sugar Plum Lane” with a straight face.

The bottom line, however, is that all this may be moot: Last I looked, Hang ’Em High Way/Sugar Plum Lane/Justice Center Drive was still a road to nowhere, as not a shovel of earth has been turned on the planned multimillion dollar, largely state funded but still very imaginary complex of buildings.

Which seems to undermine the board’s “that’s where it goes” logic.

So maybe we should let Walt Disney name our brand-new road, because at this point the only place it goes is Fantasyland.

Chris Bateman, 66, is a journalist based in Sonora, California, where over the past 40 years he has covered everything under the Sierra Nevada sun. 

Copyright © 2013 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman March 1, 2013 01:08
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  1. Sean Janssen March 3, 08:33

    FWIW, Calaveras County considered “Justice Center Drive,” but ended up going with “Jeff Tuttle Drive,” for the recently deceased District Attorney. There weren’t exactly hurt feelings about naming it for an individual but I could follow the reasoning behind naming it for Claude Ballard instead, because he was the first sheriff to say, “Hey, guys, this jail sucks. Let’s build a new one!” That was something like 30 years ago so good luck, Tuolumne County! They could call it “Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane Drive” because both penal institutions are equally real at this point.

  2. al mandell March 3, 19:44

    GREAT column, CB! As per usual. You make an excellent point about calling it “Crooked Lane.” The Nixon family COULD sue for royalty payments. And they’d probably get a fight on their hands from the Clintons (both Bill and Hil). President nine-iron (a/k/a Obama) might also demand a piece of that pie. As you no doubt know, CB, by naming this street “Crooked Lane,” you could help boost tourism. Many sons, daughters of Chicago politicians would flock to Tuolumne to point to such a sign and say, “Look, a street named after Dad … “

  3. Paul Girard March 6, 11:20

    Why not name it “NO OUTLET END”? They already have the signs!

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