Harney County, Oregon, has one claim to fame (besides Crystal Crane Hot Springs): It is the Biggest Little County in Oregon! Big, in the fact that it covers over 10,000 square miles, but small in the fact that within those boundaries there is a population of only 7,000-plus.
It may appears that there’s not much out there in Harney County. Miles of road stretch along the highway with few houses, buildings or businesses in view. Burns, the largest–well, only–mid-sized community within a 75 mile boundary in Harney County, is the hub of Oregon’s south. The once-towns of Blitzen and Ragtown are now dusty remnants along the high desert highway, and only Hines, Oregon, is there to keep Burns company.
For such a small town, however, Burns is full of history and intrigue. Burns, and the surrounding Harney County have much to offer: whether you prefer searching small shops and businesses for historical relics, or prefer an outdoorsy-type adventure up the Steers Mountain.
The History of Burns, Oregon
Just as many of the communities developed in the West during the 1800’s, Burns was part of the eastern Oregon gold rush, which brought thousands of settlers to the area. These settlements caused conflict with the Northwest Native Americans, and violent encounters led the the establishment of military camps in Harney County by the federal government.
Other settlers were prompted to make their way to Harney County to raise cattle off the bunchgrass once the railroad was established in Winnemucca. As large cattle ranchers (financed by out-of-state cattle owners) began to take over parcels of land, conflict erupted between the mass cattle ranches and the small, family-owned farms, causing disputes over land ownership and water rights for many decades.
Burns was eventually made part of a grant to develop the Willamette Valley and Cascade Mountain Wagon Road (which extended from Albany to the Washoe Ferry to the Snake River). Reserving a 24-block plat of developable land for themselves, land grant owners established the Town of Burns in 1883.
As you drive through Burns today, it is not a far cry from it’s rough and tumble roots. Only two buildings in the town are two-stories high. These buildings were build for fraternal groups such as the Masons, who rented out the ground floor and used the upper floor as the lodge. You can still see the group’s emblem (three interlocked rings) on the Odd Fellows structure at 348 N. Broadway.
All other two-story structures were reserved for wealthy merchants. One such merchant was the owner of the building on 530 N. Broadway, which was intended to be much taller, but the rubble one the sides suggests that the plans never came to fruition, and the building was disguised to hide this unsightly fact.
Visitors to Burns can view these remnants of Burns-past, and also enjoy the galleries filled with collections of Western and Native American art and artifacts (such as large collections of arrowheads).
There is also a variety of geological sight-seeing in Burns and the surrounding area, such as the Crystal Crane Hot Springs, Malheur Nations Wildlife Refuge (a bird-watcher’s Mecca), and the Steens Mountain. The 35-mile mountain boasts of five separate vegetation zones of glaciated gorges, lakes, meadows, and viewpoints over the canyon.
With over 250 species of migratory birds in the county, and numerous outdoor activities to choose from, there’s plenty to see in Harney County. Whether you like history, bird-watching, camping, hiking, hunting, or fishing, recreational opportunities abound!