written by Bob Woodward
Sue Briggs loves Union. “It’s the mix of people, the sense of safety, the look and feel of the place and the slow pace of life that make this town so wonderful,’ she says.
Located in the Grande Ronde Valley between the Blue Mountains to the west and the Wallowas to the east, Union is small-town America.
Geologists muse that many of the rocky features west of Union were created between 13 and 14 years million ago, when lava shot through cinder cones on the western side of the Wallowa Mountains. Lava flowed slowly leaving behind grey layered monuments and fertile volcanic soil for farming.
Modern history of the Grande Ronde Valley found the Nez Perce and Umatilla tribes trading goods along the Oregon Trail. After it was founded in 1862, the town continued its reputation as a trade hub for goods, with supplies bound for Baker City miners coming off boats on the Columbia River.
Today, Union (population 1,960) is called “The City of Victorian Heritage” after its cluster of Victorian era homes along Main Street. Classic brick buildings in its downtown core area, like the Union Hotel and the bus barn at the end of Main Street, are listed on the National Register of Historic Buildings making Union quintessential small town Oregon.
Briggs, who lives two doors down from the historic post office in a house built in 1879, has been a local for more than four decades. She served as Union’s mayor (its first female mayor) from 1992 to 2000, and is currently on the city council, and the town’s economic development and tourism committees.
Attracted by the town’s obvious charm, retirees are Union’s primary growth hormone. “Prior to this, the last influx of new people was during the late ’70s early ’80s real estate boom in California when people sold out there for outrageous prices and moved here to enjoy small town living,” Briggs notes.
Oregon’s ethic of innovation and sustainability is pervasive, even in the tiny, remote Union. Today, the treated effluent from its sewage treatment plant is used to water the grass of its new Buffalo Peak golf course, formerly a town dump.
Buffalo Peak is but one example of how Union is changing. “We have wireless Internet, and with it has come a group of small Internet-based companies with home offices as far away as Florida,” says Briggs.
But even as new businesses come to town, the community is still anchored by its traditional farming operations, sawmills and small manufacturing companies.
The valley is also a compelling tourist attraction. Visitors often tour the Union County Museum for its popular “Cowboys Now and Then” displays, dine at Briggs’ favorite, the historic Union Hotel and camp out at Catherine Creek State Park just outside town on Highway 203.
Two new eateries will offer more options to locals and groups like Cycle Oregon, the week-long September tour of 2,000 cyclists, which often puts Union on its biking itinerary.
The wider Grande Ronde Valley is a recreation hotspot for top-notch fishing, rafting, kayaking, horseback riding and hiking.
“I know the appeal of the natural surroundings here, with the Wallowa and Blue mountains, and Hell’s Canyon so close by,” says Briggs. “But even more so, I appreciate the fact that Union is in Eastern Oregon’s banana belt. We get less fog than surrounding areas, and only one week of intense heat and intense cold a year. A person can live very nicely here without ever wanting to leave town. And that’s what I like best about my home town of Union.”
Location: Northeast Oregon in the Grande Ronde Valley, between the Blue and Wallowa mountains
Industry: Farming, government, manufacturing, retail, Internet-based companies
Median household income: $28,529
Median home price: $110,400
Cost of living: 22% lower than U.S. average
Recreation: Hiking, fishing, mountain/road biking, horseback riding
What to do: Wander the Union County Museum; ride horseback, camp and fish at Catherine Creek State Park; windsurf at Thief Valley Reservoir; kick back at the historic Hot Lake Springs Resort; ski at Anthony Lakes Mountain Resort or the Meacham Divide Cross-Country Ski Area
Sources: PSU Population Research Center, National Relocation
Did you know Union …
Was founded in 1862, getting its name from local support for the Union Army cause during the Civil War.
Is home to the 102-year-old Eastern Oregon Livestock Show and Rodeo, the longest continuous running event of its type in the state
Is called “The City of Victorian Heritage” for its stately old homes and well-kept graveyard.
Alternated with La Grande as the Union County seat until 1905 when La Grande became the permanent seat.
Is a main stop on Highway 203, aka the “back way”, between La Grande and Baker City and one of Oregon’s most scenic road bike routes.
Is home to the National Historical Register listed Union Hotel, a little spooky at times, whose annual haunted house Halloween event draws thousands of participants from across Oregon.