Union County

The population growth in eastern Oregon during the early 1860s prompted the Legislative Assembly to split Umatilla and Baker Counties from Wasco County on September 22, 1862. Further development of the Grande Ronde Valley led to calls for the legislature to split Union County from Baker County. This finally occurred on October 14, 1864. Union County's name reflects the support of the people in this area toward maintaining the United States during the Civil War.

Between 1875 and 1913, adjustments were made to Union County's borders with Baker, Umatilla, and Wallowa Counties. Union County, lying between the Blue and Wallowa Mountains, is bordered by Wallowa County on the east and north, Umatilla County on the west, and Grant and Baker Counties on the south.

The establishment of a county seat resulted in competition, based on geography and on economic and population growth, between La Grande and the city of Union. The county seat moved between Union and La Grande until it was permanently transferred to La Grande in 1905.

With each transfer of the county seat, there was a similar removal of the county courthouse. The first courthouses were rented structures in Union and La Grande. When the city of Union was designated as the county seat in 1874, the county's records were quickly moved to a new brick courthouse in the area where Union High School now stands. La Grande regained the county seat in 1905 and moved into the courthouse that had been built the previous year as the city hall. The courthouse recently was razed and offices for the county clerk, assessor, treasurer, and planning department were relocated to the nearby Chaplin Building.

The government of Union County consisted originally of a county judge, two county commissioners, clerk, sheriff, treasurer, assessor, school superintendent, and coroner. It changed from a county court to a board of commissioners in 1991.

The county historically has been a slow growth area. The first census of the county in 1870 showed only 2,552 inhabitants. It has grown steadily and by 2000 the population was 24,530, representing an increase of 3.95% since 1990.

The initial economic interest in the area was mining, but most of the mines were in the area annexed by Baker County in 1901. Over the years farming (wheat, fruit, vegetables, and grass seeds), cattle, sheep raising, and timber replaced mining as the primary economic forces in the county. Nearby mountains and streams provide hunting, fishing, skiing, and camping opportunities.

Did You Know? 
 
Most people wouldn't expect to find a beautifully restored opera house in a small Union County town--which makes Elgin surprising. This city with under 2,000 residents is the home of the Elgin Opera House. Its small downtown also boasts several other beautiful early-1900s vintage buildings.

Built in 1912, the opera house was designed with the improbable role of housing city government offices and the theater. Praised for its acoustics and slanted seating arrangement, the opera house features plush draperies, box seats, an orchestra pit, elaborate backdrops, and decor in the rococo style. Listed on the National Register of Historic Buildings, the opera house currently offers plays, music, community events, and movies on its schedule.