Heritage group hopes for permanent West Linn Paper mill tour
Love doesn't always begin at first sight.
For West Linn resident and Willamette Falls Heritage Foundation (WFHF) member David Caraher, it took two tours of the old West Linn Paper Company mill — 20 years apart — to fully appreciate what he was seeing.
And so struck was Caraher during his second tour last December, about two months after West Linn Paper announced it was closing permanently, that he decided to do whatever he could to keep this opportunity available for other members of the public.
Caraher and his fellow WFHF members took a significant step forward in that pursuit recently as they acquired a $45,000 grant from Clackamas County Tourism and Culture to fund a feasibility study and concept plan for a permanent public tour of the paper mill.
"I think a lot of people are interested in having a tour available, because they don't know what's down there," Caraher said. "Crown (Paper) and the forerunners to that, they were the main employment in West Linn for years — that was a big deal."
Caraher said WFHF member Jody Carson had to convince him to take the tour for a second time.
"In spite of my callous attitude at the beginning, I was really stunned at the magnitude and scope," Caraher said. "The overwhelming realization was that people from West Linn go across that Arch Bridge hundreds and hundreds of times a day and don't have any idea what's down there, or the significance of it."
Caraher also believes that public tours could help increase awareness and interest for West Linn's ongoing waterfront redevelopment planning.
"I wanted to stimulate interest with the general population of West Linn and maybe see if we can't get them a little engaged in the planning process," he said. "I'd hate to see that go forward with mediocre interest from the public."
The tours have the potential to attract a broad audience too, as was evidenced by the presence of teen photographer Amani Duncan on the tour Caraher took in December.
"We found ourselves next to each other a number of times, taking pictures and comparing notes, and at the end of the tour we shared what we had taken," Caraher said. "I was really impressed."
Duncan's photos, which accompany this story, capture the mill in settings both expansive and intimate — from cavernous industrial spaces to the cramped and rusting locker room area.
"I'd forgotten the immenseness of it — some of those rooms are the size of two or three basketball courts," Caraher said. "That had faded from my memory."
Since the October 2017 announcement of its closure, West Linn Paper has provided tours like the one Caraher attended, and former employee Penny Machinski estimated that she led at least 50 such tours during the last half of 2017. But far more work needs to be done to establish a permanent tour.
"The next step is to award a contract with this grant for a company to do the evaluation (of a potential tour)," Caraher said. "There's issues like safety ... in some cases, the roof leaks and the floor is wet and there are obstacles to step over. And there are places where you could probably fall."
Additionally, a feasibility study funded by the grant would explore what type of tour experience would be most marketable and how the tour would be laid out around the site.
On the latter point, the options are boundless.
"There's so many features there, between the (Willamette Falls) Locks, the old electric power stations, the old mill, there's a museum for the locks, there's a fish counting station, an eel ladder, fish ladder and Native American fishing site," Caraher said. "It's a lot for such a confined area."