Two links to Elgin’s law enforcement history may someday be tourist attractions.
Plans are being made to include Elgin’s two old jails in a local history center. The jails will be part of the Elgin Museum collection, which is being moved into Elgin’s former city hall building, which was vacated last week when the city moved its offices into the old W.C. Construction building, said Gerald Hopkins of the Elgin’s museum society.
Elgin’s most primitive and austere old jail is a small wooden shack now on the west side of the Opera House. It was once located on Elgin’s main street, according Union County historian Bob Bull of La Grande. Today it is being used by the City of Elgin as a storage site.
The second Elgin jail is also austere but far more modern. The two-cell facility is on the bottom floor of the Opera House and currently is filled with theater costumes.
Hopkins said the Elgin Opera House hopes to construct a separate storage space to house its costumes. Once this is done the organization will move its costumes out of the old jail, which will later be opened for public visits.
It is not known when the jail in the Opera House building opened, but it was in use through the 1970s. Ronnie Allen of La Grande, who served as a Oregon State Certified Police Officer for the old Elgin Police Department for nine months between 1970 to early 1971, remembers the jail well.
Allen said there was a desk used for fingerprinting those who had been arrested at the entrance to the jail, which had two cells.
Individuals charged with driving under the influence of intoxicants were not lodged at the jail but instead transported to the La Grande Police Department’s old jail on Washington Avenue just north of the post office.
“We took them to the La Grande Police Department office because it had a breathalyzer,” said Allen, who was certified to conduct breathalyzer tests.
Allen said that in the early 1970s the legal limit for blood alcohol was at least twice what it is today.
If the person charged with DUII was determined to have a blood alcohol content over the legal limit for driving, Allen said, the individual would be left at the La Grande jail.
Allen said people lodged at the Elgin Opera House building jail were always kept there for less than a day.
The La Grande jail on Washington Avenue operated for a number of decades. It was a two-cell facility, according to Becky Lester of La Grande, whose father, David Lester, was a La Grande Police Department officer in the 1960s and 1970s. The old jail is still there but is filled with items being stored by the city.
The old La Grande jail operated until about 1979 when the present Union County Correctional Facility jail, which houses inmates arrested by the La Grande Police Department and the Union County Sheriff’s Office, opened.
Prior to 1979, those arrested by the Union County Sheriff’s Office were placed in a jail at the old courthouse on L Avenue, which was located less than 100 feet from where today’s courthouse is and was torn down in the late 1990s. Retired Union-Wallowa County Circuit Judge Eric Valentine said the jail at the courthouse was far from impressive.