Blue Heron Beginnings: Commentary on the Willamette Falls Legacy Project -

It would be interesting to know whether, since the closing of the Blue Heron mill, anyone has considered a form of economic development infrastructure last seriously proposed within the Blue Heron site — and rejected — at the dawn of the paper making era; and which, now that the paper making era has passed, may or may not be a worthy subject of in-depth re-examination:


Decades after The Spectator in 1846 offered the prediction “that, in a few years, there will be constructed a canal on each side of the river, commencing at the head of the falls and locked down for a distance of one mile,” the prediction nearly came true.

The celebrated Willamette Falls Locks, on the West Linn side, opened on New Year’s Day 1873. Lost in history, though, are the ambitions in the same era to construct locks on the Oregon City side, and the near-realization of a similar idea later, in 1911, before paper magnate Willard P. Hawley led the opposition that scuttled it.

by: 1911 RENDERING FROM THE OREGONIAN - A proposed canal route would have taken out Willard Hawley's flagship Imperial Mills as well as several other industrial buildings.Regarding the first story, the Willamette Falls Canal & Locks Co. (WFCL) incorporated in 1868, with an eye towards building locks on the west bank of the Willamette River, in order to break the lock of monopoly the People’s Transportation Company (PTC) had for most of that decade over Willamette River freight traffic. In the fall of 1868, WFCL had a bill introduced in the legislature that would provide state support for its locks plan.

PTC did not sit by idly; rather, it had a competing bill introduced in which it offered its own plan to construct locks on the east bank, as an extension of the steamboat basin it constructed in 1865. On Oct. 17, 1868, the Oregon City Weekly Enterprise reported, regarding this bill, that PTC “have it in contemplation to build locks as soon as the shipping business of the State demands such improvement, and the plans, specifications and maps showing the number and positions of locks necessary are already drawn.” The WFCL plan won out.

PTC tried again in the 1870 legislature. The Weekly Enterprise, on the front page of its Sept. 30, 1870, edition, published the texts of two competing Willamette Falls locks bills: one for continued support for the WFCL canal-and-locks plan on the west bank; the other supporting PTC’s east-bank plan. The text of the latter bill stated that PTC would “construct a canal, locks, or works on the eastside of the Willamette River at Oregon City, either with inclined planes, or otherwise, at the discretion of such corporation, provided said locks shall not be less than 180 in length and 35 feet in width, and to be constructed of stone, cement, iron and wood, and built in a durable and permanent manner.” WFCL again prevailed, and by September 1871 PTC folded up shop and sold all its assets.

Over the ensuing decades, the Willamette Falls locks passed through a succession of private owners, and ultimately into the possession of Portland General Electric Co. in 1892. In 1899, the U.S. government began to take an interest in the locks, in no small part over the issue of whether its acquisition of the locks and removal of the toll might enhance river traffic and the development of the Willamette Valley. That year, a board of government engineers examined the locks, “with a view of ascertaining the desirability of their condemnation and purchase by the United States.” PGE offered to sell the locks for $1.2 million. The board thought that price excessive, and it concluded that it could build locks on the east side of the river for about $450,000.

As the federal government eventually learned, however, costs far beyond those for construction would confront proposals for locks on the east bank.

Momentum for eastside locks continued to build, reaching a fever pitch in the first decade of the 20th century. Communities, farmers and newspapers coordinated a campaign throughout the Willamette Valley, with the rallying cry, “Free Locks!” For example, a newspaper called the Daily Capital Journal printed huge headlines, and published pages of letters to the editor, in support of the Jones Bill, passed by the state legislature in 1907. The state pledged $300,000 to purchase the Willamette Falls Locks, or build new ones, in order to provide a system of locks that would not charge a toll; provided, however, that the federal government would match the state’s contribution.

The federal government responded, and new east-bank locks nearly became reality under the leadership of Major J.F. McIndoe of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In 1910, McIndoe sought out the advice of the Oregon City Commercial Club (a precursor to the Chamber of Commerce) as to the nature and character of commerce on the Willamette River, with an eye towards improvements. The Commercial Club issued McIndoe a letter report on Oct. 10, 1910, which focused on the need to dredge the Clackamas Rapids just below Oregon City, and to provide for an enhanced system of locks. The report closed by saying:

“The business men, property owners and manufacturers of Oregon City are a unit in the belief that with an improved waterway between Oregon City and Portland, assuring a depth at low water of eight feet, and with a new and up to date system of locks between the upper and lower river, whereby larger boats could go in the minimum of time from below to above Willamette Falls, the prestige of the great Willamette River would be assured, not only as a regulator of traffic, but also as a factor in the development of the Willamette Valley that would induce capital to seek it, and thus assist in making it the Queen Valley of the Northwest.”

Based on a report prepared by McIndoe, the U.S. Secretary of War in the fall of 1911 approved the construction of eastside locks in Oregon City.

Almost immediately, though, a very loud voice of opposition to the plan emerged in the person of Willard P. Hawley, president of the paper company that bore his name. Hawley proclaimed, “As the route for the canal and locks has been surveyed our mills will be so cut up as to virtually amount to annihilation,” and he threatened move his company out of Oregon City if the government built the canal. Indeed, various newspapers published a graphic representation of the canal route that would take out Hawley’s flagship Imperial Mills building and its annex that housed his pride and joy, No. 1 Paper Machine, as well as several other industrial buildings. McIndoe and the Corps of Engineers responded by generating two alternative routes, one that shifted the original route parallel to the west and off the footprint of the Imperial Mills building, and a second that ran along the shoreline.

However, despite a mass meeting organized by the Commercial Club of property owners and business owners that overwhelmingly endorsed an east bank canal, Hawley intensified his opposition. In a letter to the Corps of Engineers Hawley detailed anticipated damages exceeding $1 million, regardless of which of the two alternative proposals the Corps might eventually adopt. The first alternative, he charged, would appropriate use of the basin, which the mill used for watercraft and as a booming ground for logs. It would also interfere with the mill’s water supply and waterpower, including those granted to the mill under long-term, 45-year leases. The second, shoreline alternative would prevent Hawley’s company form achieving its plans to expand Mill A (originally Station A), appropriate the company’s wharf, and also interfere with water rights, power, and leases. Hawley demanded an indemnity from the Corps.

In addition, any of the three alternative plans would interfere with the operations of the Oregon City Woolen Mills and the eastside plant of the Crown Columbia Pulp & Paper Co. The Oregonian estimated that approximately 1,000 people worked in the mills that the plans for new locks would impact.

Ultimately, the obstacles presented by the prospective costs of cutting a canal and locks through an intensively developed area led the Corps of Engineers to abandon its plan for an east side canal and locks. By February 1912, the Secretary of War authorized McIndoe to make an offer of up to $375,000 to purchase the westside locks. The transfer occurred in 1915.

Just over a century has now passed since Major McIndoe’s efforts to construct a canal and locks on the east bank of the Willamette River. The paper making operation that Hawley established just earlier, during that same era, has also passed. The intensive industrial activity and development that proved the decisive obstacle to McIndoe’s plan has now gone, which raises an intriguing question: might there exist, in 2014 and moving forward, reasons for constructing locks on the east bank of the Willamette River?

A modern lock system could accommodate traffic that the 1873-era locks just can’t: namely, any barge or other vessel that requires more than 40 feet of width. A new “single chamber” lock with a 40-foot rise might, as well, require less operation and maintenance expenditures than the series of four lock chambers, each with a 10-foot rise, of the Willamette Falls Locks. Indeed, towards the end of WWII, the Army Corps of Engineers proposed replacing the locks with a modern, single-chamber lock on the west bank.

Posing this hypothetical, however, itself generates a “cascade” of other questions:

n Do we need locks at all? Does truck and rail service adequately supply transportation for Willamette Valley agricultural and manufactured products? Or, would boat and barge traffic offer a competitive cost advantage?

n Might restoring freight and tourist boat traffic between Portland and the upper Willamette Valley spur economic development in Oregon City, including the Blue Heron site? Would it assist the riverfront redevelopment efforts of other towns and cities?

n Would planning for new locks detract from the excellent work now being done by the Willamette Falls Heritage Foundation and the National Trust for Historic Preservation to evaluate the feasibility of reopening the Willamette Falls Locks, closed since 2011? Or, might a synergy between the two locks systems, one modern, one historic, provide a critical mass that would be beneficial to the efforts to reopen the historic locks?

n Would constructing new locks require a corresponding long-term commitment to dredging channels to accommodate the size of boats and barges that would make use of the locks?

n What would the environmental impacts be of both constructing new locks and maintaining dredged channels within the Willamette River? Would dredging damage habitat, cause excessive turbidity, and kick up toxic sediments? Would new locks become a vector for the spread of invasive species?

n What consequences would new locks have on existing water usage and water rights at Willamette Falls?

One scenario for an Oregon City locks might involve a modern, single-chamber lock constructed within the existing basin, with an exit gate at the location of the current north wall of the basin, underneath the walkway. The exit canal at lower-river level might then follow the general trajectory of the 1911 proposed canal — paralleling the current diagonal west wall of the basin — but in a way that carefully avoids the historic Hawley building and No. 1 Paper Machine building. Such a trajectory, however, would require the removal of Blue Heron’s immense boiler plant building, Mill G.

It would also likely require new, additional demonstration scenarios for one of the main features of the Willamette Falls Legacy Project (WFLP) framework master plan, namely the large public open space envisioned between Mill G and Mill O. These variants would likely involve shorter day-lighted tailraces emptying into the exit canal rather than directly into the Willamette River, but the boat traffic through a canal might add to the bustle and activity envisioned for this public space.

Consideration of whether to build locks on the east bank of the Willamette River might take two, four, 10 years. The WFLP framework master planning process, on the other hand, is on a fast track. The simple solution to reconciling the discordant time frames: reserve within the framework master plan a “canal and locks corridor” or “right of way,” and design around it. Little controversy might arise to the prohibition of new development within this short corridor or right of way already located completely within the floodplain.

An earlier installment of this column discussed “Giving thanks for the wisdom of the elders” (Nov. 27, 2013). Perhaps we should take a “Seventh Generation” view of the locks question. Even if in today’s economy there might not be a need for new locks, we do not know what the economy will look like 10, 20 or 50 years from now. If we plan now for the benefit of future generations, if not our own, we can ensure that our legacy to them is not a lock without a key.

Oregon City resident James Nicita is a former city commissioner.

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