Sandy Carter's work occupies a relatively small but important part of the story — without her and other volunteers, the 2011 closing could very well have been the death knell for the locks.
History has a keen sense of irony.
How else to explain the story Sandy Carter tells from a couch in her living room, surrounded by photos and memorabilia from the Willamette Falls Locks. Carter, a longtime West Linn resident, has been one of the most passionate advocates for the historic structure since she first laid eyes on it in 2001, and has been fighting to reopen them for commercial and recreational use since the United States Corps of Engineers unexpectedly shut them down in 2011.
Yet if her grandfather had his way, Carter would never have seen the locks — which served as a popular passageway for freightage and recreation — as they were originally built in 1873.
That grandfather, Robert E. Hickson, was the head civilian engineer for the Portland district of the Corps of Engineers during the 1940s and 50s. As Carter learned while doing research at the Oregon Historical Society, Hickson actually helped lead a charge to replace the locks with a new structure.
"It turned out during that time period, starting in 1939 actually, there was an act passed by Congress that was going to take out those locks and replace them with a new quote 'modern' single lift, 46 feet, much bigger because they were considered to be a bottleneck for all the log rafts," Carter said. "I found out that grandpa, back in that day, considered the locks sort of an anachronism, and now that's 70 years ago. And here they still work, they still have integrity, and now they're about the right size for the recreational demand and the commercial traffic there is on the river these days.
"Anyway, I'm glad he was unsuccessful."
Indeed, the locks have persevered through a number of challenges over their near 150-year history. Carter's work occupies a relatively small but important part of that story — without her and other volunteers, the 2011 closing could very well have been the death knell for the locks.
Instead, Carter has been as busy as ever — most recently in her work as a member of the Willamette Falls Task Force, which first convened in January 2016 and also featured representatives from West Linn, Oregon City, the state Legislature, Clackamas County and Metro.
After a year's worth of meetings, that task force will give way to even
more work from other groups in 2017, with the ultimate goal being to reopen the locks and potentially transfer ownership away from the Corps.
For Carter and the locks, it was a tale of love at first sight.
"I'd never seen a lock," she said. "Let alone one from 1873 where the water comes out in a waterfall through the gates. It told its own story ... they just look really venerable to me, and there aren't many things that haven't been torn up that are that old."
Carter said her fascination "really kicked in" around 2002, when then-Oregon congresswoman Darlene Hooley took rode through the locks as a symbolic gesture to bring public attention to the structure.
"They're just hidden unless you know where to look, or you dart across the old bridge and get stuck in traffic and look to the right," Carter said.
It was around that same time that funding for the locks dropped dramatically, according to Carter, and the nonprofit Oregon Solutions — which also led the most recent task force — was enlisted to lead an advocacy group that met from 2005 to 2009. Near the end of that time, locks advocates struck gold in the form of federal stimulus money.
"At that time, the Obama stimulus plan was happening, and they temporarily shut the locks at that time because they suddenly realized they were overdue on a mandatory safety inspection of the gates," Carter said. "With support we had that came out of 'Oregon Solutions No. 1', we were able to get a stimulus grant and able to help the Corps complete that inspection so the locks could be open again."
The 2011 closing, then, came as a shock. With that latest inspection complete, Carter and others thought they were out of the woods.
"We were kind of blindsided actually, when they closed them," Carter said.
Carter and her fellow advocates were undaunted, though, and she is still confident that she will one day see the locks reopened. There's simply too much opportunity stored within the structure, even if some — like her grandfather — couldn't see it.
"I see kind of a re-blooming of river traffic of all descriptions, actually," Carter said. "It used to be a multiple-use river with barges and tugs, recreation and fishing. And I think it could be that again. I'd buy a cruise from the Portland Spirit or whatever, if they'd take me up through the locks and feed me dinner up there by Rock Island."
Commerce, recreation, tourism — Carter sees it all in droves, particularly if the locks reopened in conjunction with the work done on Oregon City's Willamette Falls Legacy Project and other efforts to bring national attention to the region.
That's what keeps her going after all of these years, along with the elation that comes with successful advocacy.
"Once you start and you see progress, it's really hard to stop," Carter said. "You become kind of empowered by the fact that you can make a difference, have an effect on this situation, and actually you're doing it for a lot of people out there that don't have the time or ability to speak up and do the things that you have to do."