Historic Willamette Falls Locks briefly reopened to shepard Canby Ferry upstream

by: JOSH KULLA - The Willamette Falls Locks were temporarily re-opened July 16, allowing the newly repaired Canby Ferry to move back upstream. As she stood along the railing at the Willamette Falls Locks July 16, watching a newly repaired Canby Ferry float through the 140-year-old gates, Sandy Carter felt a sense of knowing satisfaction.

Contrary to popular belief, the historic locks were not broken. They had simply been closed for monetary reasons, as the United States Corps of Engineers could no longer provide the funding needed to keep the locks open and operational.

The brief re-opening amounted to a special exception, allowing the freshly repaired and retrofitted Canby Ferry to move from Portland back up to its namesake home base. For some, like Carter — who is the executive director of the Willamette Falls Heritage Foundation — it was an example of service the locks could still provide on a regular basis; others viewed the event as a final chance to see the historic landmark in action.

“I just wanted to see it for probably the last time,” said Jim Bale, a mechanic who helped renovate the locks back in the 1980s.

Indeed, Corps of Engineers Spokesperson Diana Fredlund admitted that in the absence of additional funding, the future of the locks was very much in limbo.

“This is likely the last time the locks will be operated in a very long time,” Fredlund said. “Unfortunately, it’s funding and money — we know what needs to be done. We’re just having some difficulty in locating the funding we know we need to get it done.”

The locks, which first opened in 1873, were shut down in December 2011 when the Corps discovered “extensive corrosion” on the gudgeon anchors that open and close the gates. The safety officer, according to Fredlund, was concerned about further damage that couldn’t be seen and decided that the locks could not continue to be labeled operational.

The locks were briefly reopened in January so the Canby Ferry could make its way downstream to a dry dock in Portland for repairs, and July 16 saw the completion of that journey as the ferry traveled back to Canby.

In both cases, the Corps required that the ferry be unmanned and towed by rope through the locks.

“We were very concerned about life and safety,” Fredlund said. “We didn’t want to put anyone in harm’s way, so they had to make sure that they were able to do it unmanned.”

All went smoothly during the return trip, and the ferry made it through the locks without a hitch. After a $1.4 million repair job, the Canby Ferry returned to service with crossings between Canby and Wilsonville on July 19. by: JOSH KULLA - The Willamette Falls Locks were temporarily re-opened July 16, allowing the newly repaired Canby Ferry to move back upstream.

The future of the locks, meanwhile, may lie in the hands of Carter and advocate Peggy Stickler, who is the Oregon field officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The duo made a presentation to the West Linn City Council on July 15, and ultimately hopes to find new ownership for the locks.

“We had a public meeting about a year ago,” Stickler said. “And the consensus of the 60 attendees was that it was time to move on from trying to get the Corps to open them and look at transferring them out of Corps ownership. So we’ve been meeting with a lot of different agencies, partners and experts to try to figure out who should own the locks, who’s willing to own the locks.”

The Corps, for its part, is highly receptive to that idea, though Fredlund cautioned that it would not be easy.

“That’s one of the things we would look into, but it’s a rather complex process,” Fredlund said. “It’s not a short-term idea. They’re trying to get their plan together, and then they’ll bring it to us to review.”

In their council presentation, Carter and Stickler said they are currently seeking fundraising for a study by ECONorthwest, which would provide economic analysis of reopening the locks for commerce, recreation and tourism.

“We have a river that used to be the main highway for Oregon, just sitting there,” Carter said. “And it’s really important to people for recreation.

“The locks would be such a great asset if we could just get some money in the budget to get them working again.”

For more information about the ferry, visit hjttp:// For more information about the Willamette Falls Heritage Foundation, visit JOSH KULLA - The Willamette Falls Locks were temporarily re-opened July 16, allowing the newly repaired Canby Ferry to move back upstream.

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