Baker County was created from part of Wasco County in 1862. It was named in honor of Edward Baker, one of Oregon's first senators and a colonel in the Union Army. Baker had been killed at the Battle of Balls Bluff in 1861. In 1864 Union County was created from the northern portion of the county. In 1887 Malheur County was created from the southern portion of the county. The boundaries were adjusted for the last time in 1901 when the area between the Powder River and the Wallowa Mountains was returned to Baker County. The county consists of 3,089 square miles and is bounded to the north by Union and Wallowa Counties, to the west by Grant County, to the south by Malheur County, and to the east by the State of Idaho.
The original county seat was established at Auburn. Originally a booming mining town with 5,000 inhabitants, the population dwindled and there was agitation to move the county seat. In 1868 an election confirmed Baker City as the new county seat. The county has had three courthouses, all occupying the same site. The first courthouse was a two-story wooden structure built in 1869. It was replaced by a brick building in 1885. The current courthouse is a three-story building completed in 1909. It is constructed of a gray volcanic stone quarried a few miles south of town.
Original county officers included a county judge, sheriff, clerk, treasurer, assessor, and school superintendent. Current officers also include a surveyor, and district attorney.
Gold mining was the original impetus for settlement in the area. At one time the county was the largest gold producer in the Northwest. Agriculture, stock raising, logging and tourism have become the primary economic pursuits. The Oregon Trail Interpretative Center has drawn large numbers of visitors since it opened in 1993. The Eagle Cap Wilderness Area, Hells Canyon Recreation Area, Anthony Lakes Ski Resort, along with fishing and hunting also draw visitors to the area. The county's population has fluctuated over time due in part to the boom and bust nature of mining. The population in 2000 of 16,741 represented a 9.3% increase from 1990 but was down from a high of 17,295 in 1960.
Did You Know?
The changing winds of municipal image making have blown through Baker City since it was originally named in 1866. In a nod to modernity, the city changed its name to Baker in 1911. But renewed interest in pioneer history led to the restoration of the Baker City name in 1989. This action supported a strategy to harken back to the glory days of the city when it was known as the "Denver of Oregon."
Ironically, the strategy to capitalize on pioneer history actually benefited from the benign neglect shown to many of the city's buildings over the years. Baker City's economy sputtered for much of the period after World War II. During these years, other cities were spurred on by a modernization movement to replace many of their historic buildings. But Baker City's best architecture survived, often in a state of slow decay. A number of these structures, such as the Geiser Grand Hotel, have now been restored and take center stage in the city's celebration of its rich past.