Brief History of Union County

Established: Oct. 14, 1864
Elev. at La Grande: 2,788′
Area: 2,038 sq. mi.
Average Temp.: January 30.9°, July 70.4°
Annual Precipitation: 18.79″
Economy: agriculture, forest products, manufacturing, education,
state and local government
Population: 26,196(2020 Census)

Union County lies 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 population growth in eastern Oregon during the early 1860’s 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. Union County was formed in 1864. Twenty-three years later, in 1887, Wallowa County was created from its eastern region.

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 three-member board of commissioners in 1991.

Union County is served by Senate District 29, Representative District 58, and the Second Congressional District. The first census of the county in 1870 showed only 2,552 inhabitants. It has grown steadily and the 2010 census shows the population at 25,748.

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. More recently, the county has diversified into an economic base that includes light manufacturing; technical based business and regional headquarters for Federal and State government. A mainstay of the Union County economy is Eastern Oregon University. Nearby mountains and streams provide hunting, fishing, skiing, and camping opportunities.