Thursday, November 29, 2012

Willamette Falls

A slideshow of Willamette Falls photos, from the viewpoint off 99E on the Oregon City side of the river. This is about the best view you can get of the falls without owning a boat or getting a job at one of the paper mills next to the falls. It's the only industrialized, urban waterfall we have in the area and doesn't fit our usual idea of waterfalls, which are tall, skinny, and mostly untouched by the modern world. So tourist guidebooks to the area often ignore these falls. The closest US analogies I can think of might be the Falls of St. Anthony in Minneapolis; Spokane Falls in Spokane, Wa; and High Falls in Rochester NY.

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Willamette Falls is a significant place in Oregon history, so at the risk of sounding like a third-rate Wikipedia clone (and one that relies heavily on Wikipedia, at that), it feels like I should at least try to relate a few interesting tidbits about the place rather than just going, hey, here's yet another slide show, enjoy.

The waterfall

People who care about these things claim Willamette Falls is somewhat of a big deal: 17th widest waterfall in the world, and 37th largest by volume of water. It would be in the top 20, in fact, except that much of the river is diverted away for hydropower, which we'll get to in a minute.


Several of the photos in this set show people fishing below the falls. The falls have been a prime fishing spot for migratory fish since time immemorial, primarily salmon and lamprey. Because of this, Willamette Falls and other major waterfalls around the Northwest were major cultural centers for native tribes of the region, and figured prominently in stories and legends. (One appeared here recently in a post about Coalca Landing State Park, explaining the origin of the park's once-famous balancing rock). The tribes retained their traditional fishing rights here after the 1855 treaty in which they lost virtually all of their land. The word "retained" is important here: Despite what the nation's racist uncles may have said over Thanksgiving dinner, this is not a matter of the federal government granting special rights to a minority. They were here first, the falls and the fish were theirs to begin with, and they never gave up their pre-existing rights.

I should note, however, that fishing rights don't guarantee an actual supply of fish. Lamprey populations continue to decline, and salmon runs are no healthier here than they are anywhere else.


The falls also explain why Oregon City is where it is. The town was founded in 1829 as a Hudson's Bay Company outpost (the main fort being across the Columbia River at Ft. Vancouver), as the falls were a convenient way to power a lumber mill. It would be several decades before the founding of Portland, so Oregon City was the major settlement in the region and served as the territorial capital. That, in turn, meant that the Oregon Trail ended here, as newly arrived pioneers had to stop by the courthouse to file their land claim papers.

The falls also meant that Oregon City was initially the head of navigation on the Willamette. A number of East Coast cities were founded along the Fall Line, and it would have been reasonable to think the pattern would repeat here as well. Ships couldn't go any further upstream, and moving products by land in the pre-rail, pre-paved road era was difficult and something you wanted to minimize if possible, so it seemed logical that a seaport would develop here. Portland soon took this role away from Oregon City, however; the credit's often given to (relatively) easier land routes, particularly the old Plank Road west to the farmland of the Tualatin Valley. This later evolved into Canyon Road, and then today's Sunset Highway (US 26).


The falls didn't remain a barrier for long; in 1873 the Willamette Falls Locks opened, giving river traffic a route around the falls. They were initially a private venture but later became an Army Corps of Engineers project.

Over time river traffic lost out to the railroads, and both dwindled further once paved roads and motor vehicles arrived in the Northwest. The falls saw very little traffic in recent years and maintenance costs continued to escalate, so the Corps finally placed the locks in "non-operating status" in 2011. This seems to be bureaucratic lingo for "permanently closed" without actually saying "permanent".


People in the Northwest usually think of hydroelectric power as something that involves a massive Bonneville-style dam, but Willamette Falls is home to PGE's historic Thomas W. Sullivan Plant, which has just a low dam above the falls to divert water into its turbines. Constructed in 1895, it's one of the nation's oldest hydropower plants still in operation, and was recently certified as "green power", which seems to mean that it's considered relatively benign to fish. An earlier hydro project at the falls enabled the nation's first long distance transmission of electricity, in June 1889, sending power from the falls to downtown Portland, 14 miles away. A historical marker in downtown's Lownsdale Square marks the event.

A page at the Willamette Falls Heritage Foundation provides a look inside the Sullivan Plant, which has a set of rather steampunk-looking vintage turbines.


The most prominent, and smelliest, part of the development around the falls is the paper industry. The falls were home to the Blue Heron paper mill on the Oregon City side, and the West Linn Paper Company on the West Linn side of the river, but the Blue Heron mill closed abruptly in 2011. The mill specialized in paper recycling, and apparently it's now more profitable to ship waste paper to China than it is to recycle it here. Which is yet another reminder that international trade is often bizarre and nonsensical. There are a few photos of the now-demolished powerhouse for the Blue Heron mill here


In 2011, both the locks and one of the two paper mills at the falls closed, and both closures seem to be fairly permanent. The other mill seems to be prospering, as far as I know, and the hydro plant is licensed to operate thru the year 2034, but the closures still raise a question of what (if anything) to do with the falls going forward.

Willamette Falls Heritage Foundation and the Willamette Falls Heritage Area Coalition are interested in the historic preservation aspects of the falls, the latter group wanting to involve the National Park Service in the effort. The city government is apparently interested in shifting gears and becoming a creative class hub, and Metro's expressed interest in buying the old Blue Heron site, which would likely mean at least part of the site becoming a park at some point in the distant future, and probably repurposing at least some of the historic mill buildings, similar to what's under discussion for the remote Bull Run Powerhouse. Speaking strictly as someone who likes taking photos of waterfalls, that sounds like a great idea. With one important caveat, namely that I'm not interested in throwing anyone out of work just so I can get better waterfall photos.

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