Division of Umatilla County, Oregon
The one local question that has agitated the people of Umatilla for the last four years is its division into two or three separate counties. Its present area is 5,040 square miles considerable larger than the state of Connecticut, enough for five good counties were it thickly settled by an agricultural people. As it is, however, its population of about 10,000 is no greater than one should contain, and its assessed valuation of some $3,000,000 is none too much upon which to raise the revenue for a proper and satisfactory administration of a government. Looking at it in this light it would hardly seem advisable to increase the number of offices and with them taxes necessary for their sup-port. But there is another side to the question, which when properly considered, may counterbalance these objections. Umatilla has three centers of population and wealth. One of these is the rich agricultural region in the extreme northeastern portion, including the towns of Milton, Weston, and Centerville; another is Pendleton and the country tributary to it, including the reservation, which when settled, will be a source of revenue sufficient to justify the desired division; the third is the fine stock and agricultural region about Heppner and along Willow creek, in the southwestern portion of the county. That these have interests to a degree separate and antagonistic and seem to have been designed by nature for three distinct seats of government is admitted by all. The question then becomes simplified to one of financial ability.
The country in and about Weston, Centerville and Milton has now a taxable valuation of about $900,000. This has been nearly doubled in the last few years, and the same rate of increase must for a time continue, so that within five years at most it will be able to maintain a government as expensive in every particular as the one now enjoyed. The location of a county seat at one of the three towns; the construction of the railroad from Walla Walla; the increase in the value of land; and the development of thousands of acres yet unoccupied, will all combine to make it financially, strong. In the portion that would still be left in Umatilla, with Pendleton for a county seat, there is now a valuation of about $1,500,000. It includes the track of the O. R. & N. Co. from Umatilla and the towns that are springing up along its route, as well as the lands being rapidly developed on both sides of it. The bulk of the reservation, also, is within its limits. That its valuation will be doubled within five years is hardly a matter of doubt. The third section contains about $600,000 of property, chiefly land, cattle, horses and sheep. Stock raising is its chief industry, though in portions of it farming is largely carried on. It is rapidly increasing in wealth and population, and with a small slice from Wasco would in a few years form a fine and prosperous county.
The first effort made to divide Umatilla was in 1874, in the interest of Weston. That town was then much smaller than at present, and the fertile lands that lay on the surrounding hills were not as valuable or as well cultivated as today, yet Weston desired a county seat to aid its struggles for advancement, trusting to the future for the necessary population and wealth. The effort was fruitless. Four years later the Leader was started in that place and "Division of the county" became its battle cry, and the slogan has never ceased to sound. For two years this doctrine was preached, and as the campaign of 1880 came on its friends began to make a stir. The people of Heppner also desired a county seat to aid them in building up a town. A convention was held in Pendleton, April 7, 1880, at which it was decided to nominate a ticket irrespective of party, the candidates to pledge themselves to work for a division of Umatilla into three parts. Only two of these were elected, the two county commissioners, one of whom was also on the regular Democratic ticket and the other on the Republican. The Pendleton people then called a mass meeting in that place on the tenth of July, to consider the question. This was changed to a convention of delegates from each election precinct, with an understanding that the action of the convention should not be binding unless the county was fully represented. When assembled it was found that many parts were not represented at all., and the people of Pendleton repudiated the whole affair. The other delegates then prepared a petition to the Legislature, and sought to have an act passed, but unsuccessfully.
During the next two years this subject was much discussed, and as time for the Legislature to meet again approached, they began to make combinations. The question entered largely into the county election, especially for the offices of Senator and Representative. Petitions were prepared both for and against division and sent to the Legislature, while the newspapers of Pendleton and Weston kept up a war of editorials and paragraphs. Each charged fraud in obtaining signatures, and that John Doe and Richard Roe, as well as the tombstones of the cemetery, figured too largely among names attached to the petition. In this there was nothing new; county seat contests have developed peculiarities of that nature since time immemorial. There is something so fascinating and so demoralizing about a struggle of this nature, that a groceryman who would scorn to measure his thumb in a gallon of molasses, will sign the name of a deceased friend to a petition and chuckle with delight. The three factions all sent representatives to Salem to watch their interests and hobnob with the worthy legislators. A bill was introduced by Representative Ben Stanton, to create the county of Hill with the temporary county seat at Weston. The name was subsequently changed to Thurston. The line of division was made to include within its limits nearly all the agricultural land north of Umatilla River, including the best part of the reservation, and running within a few miles both north and east of Pendleton. Such a line was vigorously opposed by many who were inclined to favor separation on a more equitable basis. To make the matter worse, Representative J. B. Sperry introduced a bill to create the county of Coal, including all west of Butter creek. This left to the original organization but a narrow strip through the middle. The people on Butter creek were nearer Pendleton than Happner and desired to remain in the old county, besides this their land lay on both sides of the stream, and to make the creek a dividing line would subject them to the annoyance of having their farms lying in two counties. The fight between the three factions waged warmly in Salem, complicated by the senatorial struggle. The Pendletonians sought to prevent division, while the other two parties each worked to get its bill through first, satisfied that but one could be successful. They both passed the House, but too late to have them go through the Senate in regular order. All efforts to have them taken up under a suspension of the rules failed, and the lobbyists returned home disappointed. The matter must now lay over two years, and the probabilities are that at the end of that time the population and wealth will have so far increased as to remove the financial objection, and then a division will be made with more satisfactory and equitable boundary lines.
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