Have you ever experienced Willamette Falls up close? For the largest waterfall in the Pacific Northwest, that is a surprisingly uncommon occurrence. The Falls are located at Oregon City, right between a major interstate and highway, yet public access is limited by the industrial sites that have surrounded the Falls for over 100 years. But that will be changing soon. The closure of the Blue Heron Paper Company in 2011 signaled the end to a long history of industry at the Falls, and plans are underway to re-envision the old mill site and surrounding land. The Willamette Falls Legacy Project is gathering input from community members on how to redevelop the area with an eye to public access, recreation, economic interests and habitat restoration while also honoring the historical and cultural significance of the site.
» A Long History Of Industry Ends At Willamette Falls, And The Future? Story from Oregon Public Broadcasting
» Blue Heron Paper Mill cleanup uses compost, gardens to keep contaminated water out of the Willamette. Story from OregonLive.com
An Ancient Tradition
For thousands of years Willamette Falls has been an important cultural site for Pacific Northwest native peoples. Today, members of the Warm Springs, Grand Ronde, Yakama, Nez Perce and other tribes continue to gather here to fish for salmon and lamprey eels. Pacific salmon and steelhead have received a lot of restoration dollars since gaining protected status under the Endangered Species Act in the 1990s, but not so for lamprey - an eel-like, ancient species of jawless fish that, like salmon, migrates to the ocean and back. Overall, lamprey numbers in the Columbia Basin have plummeted in the past several decades due to hydropower dams. Though the Willamette has many dams in its upper tributaries, there are none between the Falls and the ocean. That has helped Willamette Falls remain a place where tribal members can exercise their treaty rights to gather and fish for lamprey. Photo at right by Rick Bowmer / AP
» Lamprey: Bringing Back An Ancient Species. Story from The Seattle Times
» Why Pacific Lamprey Matter To Columbia Basin Tribes. Video from the Columbia River Inter-tribal Fish Commission
» The Lost Fish: The Struggle to Save Pacific Lamprey. Trailer of film by Freshwaters Illustrated
Roots of Industry in Oregon
Opened January 1, 1873, the locks at Willamette Falls are the oldest continually operating multi-chambered canal and navigation lock system in the United States. The lock system solved the transportation challenge caused by the 40+ foot Willamette Falls, enabling small vessels to travel the length of the mainstem Willamette River. It also provided an efficient, inexpensive means of moving large amounts of timber from the Cascade and Coast Range forests all the way downstream to the Port of Portland. Images of giant log rafts moving through the locks and down the river are iconic of Oregon's early timber boom that attracted many pioneers to settle in the Willamette Valley.
The locks have been owned by the US Army Corps of Engineers since 1915 but were closed in 2011 for an undetermined amount of time due to repairs needed. The Willamette Falls Heritage Foundation is committed to preserving and interpreting the history of pioneer industry and transportation at the Falls, and a grassroots group, the One Willamette River Coalition, is working to reopen the locks.